(Trigger warning: discussion of suicide)
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, with approximately 132 Americans dying by suicide each day. Out of the individuals who took their own lives, 90 percent had a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of their death — but 100 percent of those deaths were preventable.
Despite the pervasive effect of suicide in our society, the discussions around suicide prevention are often limited in scope. Instead of focusing on some of the tangible reasons why individuals may feel suicidal, we automatically direct our attention to supporting a loved one after they are already in extreme emotional distress. While emotional support is undoubtedly crucial to uplifting people exhibiting suicidal behaviors, we must not forget to analyze the root of these warning signs; what causes people to feel this way?
Admittedly, individuals can be at-risk for suicide for any number of reasons, such as mental illness, family history, or recent loss of a loved one. But there is also an abundance of other deeper factors that can cause the deterioration of one’s mental health — from job loss, to homelessness, to lack of healthcare. These widespread issues that plague our nation undoubtedly intersect with the nation’s increasing suicide rate.
America’s capitalist system perpetuates many of the aforementioned deep-rooted social and economic issues, thereby contributing to the declining mental health of the middle and working classes. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Princeton economists, speak to the detrimental impacts of 21st-century capitalism in their book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism.” Case and Deaton utilize over a dozen studies to demonstrate the levels of physical pain, suicide and mental distress that exemplify how our capitalist system exacerbates the nation’s mental health crisis, especially among the working class.
To delve deeper into the impact of these inequities, we can look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a psychological theory which details a five-level pyramid model of human needs. According to this theory, physiological needs — food, water and shelter, along with safety needs — physical protection, financial security and health security — must be fulfilled prior to attaining the higher-level social and psychological needs, such as love and belonging, or self-esteem.
How is it, then, that we can attempt to prevent suicide without addressing the severe impact that lack of healthcare access, financial insecurity or housing instability has on an individual’s mental health?
In the U.S., approximately 567,715 Americans experience houselessness per year, of whom 96,141 are chronically unhoused, according to The National Alliance to End Homelessness. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that approximately 27 million Americans lost their health coverage amid the pandemic. Lastly, NPR reports that 38.1 million people were considered to be impoverished in 2018.
Not every individual who contemplates suicide lacks these basic physiological and safety needs. Suicide does not discriminate — even people with the most seemingly perfect lives can be at risk. But we should not pretend that our nation’s inability to provide basic needs to its citizens does not influence the rate at which people become at-risk for suicide.
In fact, even for individuals who have many of their basic needs met, obtaining access to long-term mental health resources can be incredibly difficult in America. As of this year, over 4.7 million adults with a mental illness remain uninsured, according to Mental Health in America. In addition, about 57.2 percent of people — over 26 million — with a mental illness receive no treatment. The reasons for this include a lack of insurance, limited coverage of mental health services, an understaffed mental health workforce and insufficient funds to cover fees, such as copays.
That being said, despite its complexity and multifaceted nature, suicide and suicidal tendencies remain entirely preventable. Instead of allocating the majority of our focus to immediate prevention, such as emotional support, we must focus some attention to preventing those behaviors to begin with. This begs the question of, how do we achieve this?
Unfortunately, the solution to combating these economic inequities, such as lack of healthcare access or unstable housing, is not entirely clear-cut. These issues are so deeply ingrained within our society that it is difficult to provide immediate relief to individuals who are impacted by them. However, we can continue to spread awareness about the policies and programs that are available. For example, studies show the benefits of widespread implementation of housing stabilization policies and supportive housing, which aim to not only keep people in their home during times of financial instability, but to also provide services that will help individuals with mental illness live a more stable life. In addition, we must continue spreading awareness about the mental health resources available in our local communities while fighting for policy change on a statewide and national level.
At the end of the day, any form of suicide prevention is a step in the right direction. However, to truly tackle the increasingly pervasive effect of suicide, we must also be prepared to fight against the social and economic inequities that continue to exacerbate the mental health crisis our country is experiencing.
The suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255, and the Wellesley Stone Center Counseling Service can be reached at 781-283-2839.