Well-Being//

Do Increased Suicide Rates Stem From Our Existential Crisis?

A behavioral scientist argues that our declining mental health is in part a crisis of meaninglessness.

Image courtesy of Maxiphoto/Getty Images

Deaths caused by suicide have increased by 25 percent since 1999, according to recent data released by the CDC. With the suicide rate climbing each year and stories about depression seeming more prevalent than ever before, many blame the shortage of mental health care in America. If individuals do not have access to treatment options, they are not getting the help they need, and suicidal thoughts turn into actions.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, behavioral scientist Clay Routledge, PhD, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, argues that the suicide numbers point to a greater crisis among humankind: a crisis of meaninglessness. “We recognize that life is uncertain. We understand that pain and sorrow are part of our destiny. What is the point of it all?” Routledge writes. “In order to keep existential anxiety at bay, we must find and maintain perceptions of our lives as meaningful.” Because when people don’t maintain meaning in their lives, they are most psychologically vulnerable. Multiple studies, he says, have determined that a felt lack of meaning in one’s life has been linked to alcohol and drug abuse, depression, anxiety and — yes — suicide.

Today’s social landscape amplifies our sense of loneliness and meaninglessness, Routledge writes. “Consider that Americans today, compared with those of past generations, are less likely to know and interact with their neighbors, to believe that people are generally trustworthy and to feel that they have individuals they can confide in,” Routledge explains. “This is a worrisome development from an existential perspective: Studies have shown that the more people feel a strong sense of belongingness, the more they perceive life as meaningful.”

Routledge also puts forth that America’s existential crisis may be partly to blame for the country’s current political climate, encouraging division and conflict among citizens. “Studies show that when presented with existentially threatening ideas,” he suggests, “People respond with increased bias toward their own worldview, particularly if they are not finding meaning in their life through other sources.”

While we grapple with news of tragedies caused by mental illness, it’s more important than ever to encourage those who are struggling to use their voices and seek help. By reframing the conversation surrounding mental health and encouraging an open dialogue, we can use our efforts to ensure signs of depression are not going unnoticed. And according to Routledge, close, meaningful relationships with others play a vital role in reducing the mental health crisis. “Merely pleasant or enjoyable social encounters aren’t enough to stave off despair,” Routledge says, “We need to feel valued by [other people], to feel we are making important contributions to a world that matters.”

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