Over the past few months, there have been several heartbreaking reminders of the rise of suicide across this nation, a topic I wrote about in my first “Manners & morals” column in October (“Life on the island”). The most high profile of these suicides was L’Wren Scott’s. The forty-nine-year-old fashion designer was found dead in her New York City apartment, reportedly bought for her by then-boyfriend Mick Jagger.
A week later, the New York City schools chancellor, Carmen Farina, convened a private meeting of principals to discuss the suicide epidemic among the city’s students. Thanks to the New York Post, which broke the story, we now know that suicides are on the rise among the city’s youth: two years ago, nine students committed suicide; last year, fourteen did; and already, four months into 2014, twelve have committed suicide in New York.
In March, volunteers gathered in Washington to plant 1,892 American flags on the National Mall commemorating each veteran who had committed suicide since the beginning of 2014. Do the math: that’s twenty-two veteran suicides a day. Another tragic figure: Since 2001, the year marking the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, more active-duty soldiers have killed themselves than have died in combat.
The rise in suicide has been accompanied by a loss of the moral questions that once surrounded it. G. K. Chesterton was one of our last full-throated critics of suicide. His insistence that suicide is immoral sounds strange to our individualistic ears: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin,” Chesterton wrote: “It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” Chesterton goes on to say that the act of suicide is selfish: “A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.” It would be difficult to imagine anyone writing such a polemic today. We do not consider suicide the moral catastrophe that people like Chesterton once thought it was.
Rather, our contemporary culture treats suicide as a medical problem—a “public health concern,” as Joshua Rottman, a psychological researcher, recently told The Atlantic. According to his new research, religious and non-religious people have a moral bias against suicide, and the bias stems from “disgust reactions” they have when confronted with stories of suicide. Committing suicide, people think, taints the soul. To Rottman, this is a problem. These reactions are irrational and, therefore, harmful: “The million-dollar question,” Rottman says, is “how to de-stigmatize suicide as impure.” He went on to say, “That’s not to say that we should start thinking that suicide is perfectly OK, but I don’t think we should treat it as taboo (and therefore avoid bringing it up in polite conversation). Instead, we should engage with it as a public health concern and find ways to effectively increase prevention.” But Rottman is wrong to demoralize the notion of suicide. If we are serious about helping people overcome the dark nights of their souls, we must insist with Chesterton that suicide is a moral, not just a clinical, problem.... continue reading at The New Criterion.