Could climate change, of all things, finally force Americans to rethink suicide prevention? Of the top 10 causes of death in the United States, suicide remains stigmatized among the masses and, even among scholars, poorly understood. The U.S. has largely failed to stem the rising tide: Between 1999 and 2019, suicide rates increased by about overall, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Among youth ages 10 to 24, that figure is . At the end of another year defined by , what has commonly been considered an individual act—and, accordingly, met with solutions of a similar scope—has become an ever-more-obvious public health issue in desperate need of a new approach.
genetic predisposition; mental illness (); personal, social, or financial problems; and trauma. There’s a longstanding debate about whether environmental changes should be added to the list, too.In recent years, however, researchers have begun to reevaluate the role played by heat, air quality, and the existential despair of climate change, too. Turns out, they’re linked in ways few ever imagined.
ocial are likely also at play. In and , for example, rising temperatures have already contributed to and resulting crop failure, which appears to have made many farmers and others in intimate relationships with the landscape increasingly vulnerable to suicide.
Even less is understood about the psychological impact of the existential threat presented by climate change. It’s clear that accepting that the Earth is imperiled—and that, at least in the U.S., our lifestyles play a significant role—is difficult. Doing something about it is even harder. Furthermore, while rising atmospheric carbon from any source would be terrifying on its own, anthropogenic climate change—and the implied personal culpability—can stir up a potent cocktail of anxiety, , shame, and ennui. At times, the resulting conversation can feel eerily reminiscent of the early centuries of Christianity, when believers felt that “the longer one’s life, the more opportunity there was to sin and the less chance of eternal bliss,” writes , his 600-odd-page cross-cultural history of suicide and euthanasia. “Suicide—in the form of martyrdom—became the quickest way to heaven.”
This is a pretty awful notion to consider—suicide as the last best hope for virtue. When put in these terms, no respectable person would endorse it today. Yet the troubling climate equivalent of this line of thinking—the shorter your life, the fewer emissions you produce—is implicit in everything from the early pandemic-era to the periodically pushed by major news outlets. When consumers are told they are equally to blame for the climate crisis (a narrative conveniently crafted by the fossil fuel industry) but face a dearth of options for actually leading a more climate-friendly life, it’s all too easy to convince people to feel guilty merely for living. The market says there’s a fix for that, too: At least one carbon offset company is now encouraging customers to pay penance not only for their holiday travel, but for (which, by the way, is ).
But’as has become something of a household termAmerican psychologists and psychiatrists do not routinely ask clients whether they feel their mental health issues are spurred on by climate change. Furthermore, the accounts of people who die by suicide are reflexively distrusted, even if they explicitly name environmental issues as a source of their distress. composter’“ “’ in The Guardian “’
psychiatrist , co-founder of the and that mental health issues and, yes, suicide are connected to climate change. “It’s always a complex situation,” she says, “but here’s the thing, [on] my dashboard, the lights are all blinking red on this.” YIn a recent survey of 10,000 people ages 16 to 25, agreed with the statement that humanity is doomed, and many reported believing that they have no future. Even so, they feel a responsibility to act: of young Americans say climate change is their top personal concern, according to the Pew Research Center.
When it comes to a topic as sensitive as suicide, holding faulty narratives up to the light is tricky. Public figures, including many journalists, are often reluctant to discuss individual suicides, which can . By connecting suicide to root causes like climate change, for example, “there’s the danger that it serves as a rationale,” Van Susteren says (it shouldn’t). At the same time, suicide in the aggregate has been co-opted by politicians and diplomats around the world, many of whom use suicide as an analogy for climate inaction: It’s a “ónio Guterres; a “per U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry; and “
American society contains numerous examples of this sort of structural malevolence, wherein individuals are asked to shoulder the burden of problems caused by interlocking, and largely invisible, corporate interests. While it’s worth reiterating that the circumstances of every suicide are unique to the individual, our context is shared, and that context is often unbelievably bleak. To take just two instructive numbers, consider that Americans currently lack health care, while have a firearm in their home. In the U.S., the logic of suicide prevention often says, limit opportunities among those who already want to die (locking up firearms) first, and consider making life more liveable (affordable, comprehensible health care for all) second. As a result, even interventions that appear structural, like the act that will make 9-8-8 the by July 2022, often fall short of the radical vision required to save lives.