Social Problems and Anomic Suicide
You have probably heard news reports about the mother who drove into the Hudson river, tragically killing herself and three of her children. People speculated that her actions were caused by distress over relationship problems she had been having with her boyfriend.
We often think of suicide as primarily the result of an individual’s struggle with depression and other personal problems. Rarely do we consider some of the sociological factors that contribute to changes in suicide rates.
Recently, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study found that historically, suicides for people aged 25-64 rose during economic downturns. Their data suggest that suicide rates grew at the largest rate recorded in U.S. history between 1928 and 1932 (when unemployment rates reached nearly 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics), and were at their lowest levels in 2000 (when unemployment was at about 4 percent).
Because correlation does not prove causation, we cannot say for certain that a bad economy causes more suicides or that a good one prevents suicides. But this relationship can lead us to ask more questions about sociological factors that impact very personal decisions like suicide.
In addition to economic downturns, disasters can also be associated with increases in suicide. After the March earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster, Japanese public health officials have expressed concern about rising suicide rates, which increased after the 1995 quake in Kobe. Once the difficult reality sets in and survivors realize that their lives will not go back to normal, suicide becomes more likely.
Emile Durkheim provides several sociological explanations for suicide in his 1897 book, Suicide. Among the four types of suicide he discusses, anomic suicide might help us understand the situations noted above. According to Durkheim, when a major social change takes place and a sense of order is disrupted, people may feel a sense of anomie, or normlessness. When society itself seems to have fallen apart, survivors of disasters may not know how to begin to put their lives back together.
As the Los Angeles Times reported last April, twenty-five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster many survivors are still struggling to get by economically, emotionally, and with the physical ailments they continue to endure. For example, many survivors exposed to radiation now have thyroid cancer at a rate seven times higher than the national rate, according to the article.
Perhaps this is why in the CDC report the authors recommend, “Promoting individual, family, and community connectedness, i.e. greater degrees of social integration (e.g., number of friends, high frequency of social contact, low levels of social isolation or loneliness); [and] positive attachments to community organizations” in order to try and prevent suicide during tough economic times.
For survivors of the tornadoes that have killed hundreds in several states, the coming months and years will be vital to rebuild not just physical structures, but social structure as well. As you can see from the video below, in one town every church was destroyed. Beyond just houses of worship, congregations provide an important sense of community for their members.
The coming months and even years are critical for people surviving disasters or trying to get back on their feet after the recession. The average time people spend unemployed remains high, at 37 weeks (the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking this measure in 1948). Some of the unemployed may be feeling hopeless, that they will never find a job again.
Mental health services may seem less necessary for people struggling to find food, water, and shelter for basic survival. But they are vital to prevent another wave of casualties after a traumatic event. Contrary to the myth that suicide rises during holidays, it is when the routines of our lives are dramatically disrupted that the risk for suicide increases.