The Tragedy of Suicide

Whenever a suicide occurs, those who knew the person are usually shocked, grief-stricken, and confused. “Why did he (she) make that choice?” they wonder. “Were we in any way responsible? Were there warning signs we should have noticed? If we had cared more, loved more, would he (she) still be with us?” Worse, because the questions can never be fully answered, the wondering never ends.

Throughout the ages, although philosophers have disagreed about whether suicide is justifiable, most religions have considered the act to be a grievous sin.

In traditional Catholic teaching, suicide is considered an “absolute contradiction to everything that the Christian religion teaches us as to the end and object of life” and, except in cases of mental illness, is associated with “disorder, weakness, and cowardice.”

G. K. Chesterton expressed the Church’s view even more dramatically in his book Ôrthodoxy: “Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin . . . the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence . . . The man who kills himself, kills all men, . . . insults all women, . . . defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake,” and sneers at every creature in the universe.

Modern secular society tends to regard the traditional view of Catholicism and most other religions as harsh and cruel. But to take that view is neither reasonable nor fair. On the one hand, the traditional view focused on the act of taking one’s own life as distinguished from the person who commits the act, and that distinction, often expressed as “hate the sin but love the sinner,” is still eminently defensible. On the other hand, the traditional view lacked understanding of the complexity of human behavior. (Even then, to their credit, those who formed that view acknowledged that mental illness reduces culpability for the act of suicide.)

Today, the Catholic Church allows suicides to be buried in hallowed ground and balances its condemnation of the act of suicide with charity, compassion, and hope for the person. The Catechism says, “Suicide is contrary to love for the living God. . . [yet] we should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”

What exactly has the Church, along with the rest of the world, learned about suicide over the last century or so? For one thing, that there are many factors that, singly or in combination, fuel the temptation to end one’s life, among them mental illness, traumatic experience (for example, physical or sexual abuse), bullying, personality disorders such as difficulty coping with familial or other relationships, substance abuse, eating disorders, unemployment, social isolation, family genetics, existential crises, terminal illnesses, chronic pain, financial problems, and the side effects of prescription drugs.

These factors can cause chronic depression, loneliness, feelings of humiliation and helplessness or, in certain cases, the spiteful desire to get even with or punish others. (The last one, unlike the others, is not so much a psychological state as a sinful desire.)

The tragedy that is suicide occurs in all countries and among all peoples, regardless of their level of wealth or poverty. But the rankings can be surprising, even astounding. The 2017 World Health Organization statistics reveal that the U.S. ranks 48th out of 183 countries in suicides, with 12.6 per 100,000 people. Among those with higher suicide rates include Mongolia 28.1, North/South Korea 15.2/24.1, Poland 18.5, Russia 17.9, Zimbabwe 18.0, and Latvia 17.4. Those with lower rates include Haiti 11.7, El Salvador 11, Kenya 10.5, Cuba 10.5, Somalia 8.6, Israel 5.4, Mexico 5.0, Venezuela 3.1, and Pakistan 2.5.

Who would expect that comparative well-to-do South Korea would have a significantly higher suicide rate than impoverished North Korea? Or that the country that has been under repeated assault by its neighbors for all of its existence, Israel, would have one of the lowest rates. Or, strangest of all, that the wealthiest and most advanced country in the history of the world, the United States, would have a higher suicide rate than some of the poorest and/or most troubled countries in the world, notably Haiti, El Salvador, Cuba, Somalia, Mexico, and Venezuela?

Such puzzling realities raise interesting questions about the factors (mentioned above) that experts claim drive people to suicide. For example, why do eating disorders cause suicide in countries with an abundance of food but (apparently) not in countries with little or no food? Why do financial problems lead to suicide less frequently in poor countries than in rich ones? Why does bullying (apparently) lead to suicide in first world countries more than being tortured and raped does in third world countries? Moreover, are we to believe that chronic depression, loneliness, feelings of humiliation and helplessness are more prevalent in a country like the U.S. than in countries where all kinds of deprivation are epidemic?

The statistics on suicide within the U.S. underscore the puzzle. The annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% from 1999 to 2014, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death in the latter year.

What steps will help to reduce the incidence of suicide in our country and around the world? The following ones address the three factors associated with suicide—physical, spiritual, and emotional. By practicing them habitually we insulate ourselves from the temptation to harm ourselves. By encouraging others to do so, we help them gain the same protection:

Physical: Eat wholesome, nutritious foods. Drink recommended amounts of water and only moderate amounts (if any) of alcohol. Avoid illegal drugs altogether, and carefully consider the side effects of prescription drugs before taking them. Whenever possible, prefer natural medications to prescription drugs. These practices lessen the chances of contracting illnesses and experiencing the depression and despondency that often accompany them.

Spiritual: Spend a little time each day considering the blessings God has bestowed on you; cultivate and express gratitude for them. Take note of the disappointments and sufferings of people you know and those you learn about in the news; pray for them. As often as possible, perform acts of kindness toward those in need. These practices are not only beneficial in themselves; they also help us bear our own disappointments and sufferings more gracefully and confidently and thus be less inclined to worry and anxiety.

Emotional: Avoid self-absorption and self-indulgence (both common in today’s ego-centered culture). Stop thinking inordinately about yourself. Instead focus on your daily tasks at work (or in school) and at home, striving to perform them to the best of your ability. Doing this will ensure a continuing sense of accomplishment. Set high but reasonable expectations for yourself, but don’t expect too much of others. Doing this will both provide genuine satisfaction and diminish disappointment.

These simple steps reflect the Catholic and, indeed, the entire Judeo-Christian ideal of responsible living. They also express the secular concept coined by the Roman poet Juvenal, of “a sound mind in a sound body.”

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

About Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

Since retiring from teaching, I have continued my work in promoting sound thinking in education and in the general culture. More specifically, I have kept refining my textbooks, four of which have been continuously in print for an average of 33 years. I have also continued to write books for the general public, the latest of which is Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, and I write a weekly column for an online journal.