The Causes & Prevalence of Suicide Explained by Two Videos from Alain de Botton’s School of Life

“Sui­cide,” writes Albert Camus in “The Myth of Sisy­phus,” has nev­er been dealt with except as a social phe­nom­e­non.” And yet, as Alain de Bot­ton argues in his School of Life video above, at least when it comes to media and gov­ern­ment pri­or­i­ties, con­tem­po­rary soci­eties pre­fer to hard­ly deal with the prob­lem at all, even though it claims the lives of some 800,000 peo­ple every year. “It remains entire­ly strange,” says De Bot­ton, “that through the media we should hear so much about killers and so lit­tle about those who take their own lives.”

Giv­en that so much mass media seems to spe­cial­ize in pro­duc­ing a fear of oth­ers, per­haps this is not so strange after all. How­ev­er, when it comes to the allo­ca­tion of gov­ern­ment resources, most “in the wealthy nations tend over­whelm­ing­ly to direct their efforts to deal­ing with pover­ty, ill­ness, and aging,” and devote lit­tle to the prob­lem of sui­cide. This may be due to social stig­ma. “Sui­cide is the supreme reminder of our intense psy­cho­log­i­cal vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty,” and in high­ly reli­gious soci­eties, like the Unit­ed States, it car­ries an added stigma­ti­za­tion as a “sin.”

Nonethe­less, “giv­en that more peo­ple die by sui­cide than are col­lec­tive­ly mur­dered, die in traf­fic acci­dents, or are killed by ani­mals,” it should stand to rea­son that we would expend more effort on find­ing out why. Per­haps over and above phi­los­o­phy and the social sci­ences, De Bot­ton argues that lit­er­a­ture alerts us to the impor­tance of sev­er­al qual­i­ties that make our lives mat­ter, includ­ing “love, self accep­tance, mean­ing, hope, sta­tus, pride, for­give­ness.” Such intan­gi­bles have no price or val­ue in the com­pet­i­tive mar­ket­places that increas­ing­ly dom­i­nate our lives.

The triv­i­al­iza­tion of psy­cho­log­i­cal needs leads to anoth­er com­mon fea­ture of suicide—the “ele­ment of sur­prise.” The sui­cide of those we know, or thought we knew, near­ly always comes as a shock, which De Bot­ton takes as “evi­dence of an unwit­ting neglect of one anoth­er (and of our­selves).” It does not serve us at all to live in denial of suf­fer­ing or push despair to the mar­gins of thought. “We should always be mind­ful,” Arthur Schopen­hauer wrote in 1818, “of the fact that no man is ever very far from the state in which he would read­i­ly want to seize a sword or poi­son in order to bring his exis­tence to an end.”

Schopenhauer’s grim uni­ver­sal­iz­ing state­ment, how­ev­er, does not accord with the vast dif­fer­ences in sui­cide rates across soci­eties. Cer­tain coun­tries, like Kuwait, have rates close to zero, or 0.1 in 100,000. By con­trast, Chi­na has the high­est rate of all, at 25.6 in 100,000. One sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence, De Bot­ton argues, has to do with the “inter­pre­ta­tion and accep­tance of dif­fi­cul­ty,” includ­ing “a greater accep­tance of fail­ure, a high­er role for for­give­ness,” and “a sta­tus sys­tem that hon­ors intrin­sic val­ue over achieve­ment.”

The dif­fer­ence in sui­cide rates between nations does not have any­thing to do, how­ev­er, with wealth. “One of the most sur­pris­ing aspects of sui­cide,” De Bot­ton observes in the video above, is that rates tend to rise “marked­ly the rich­er and more devel­oped a soci­ety becomes,” a phe­nom­e­non that might appear to “negate the whole pur­pose of eco­nom­ic growth”—that is, if we assume the pur­pose is the max­i­miza­tion of human well-being. The sui­cide rate of an “unde­vel­oped coun­try like the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Repub­lic of the Con­go,” he notes, “is a frac­tion of the rate of a devel­oped coun­try like South Korea.”

De Bot­ton does not address the prob­lem of inequal­i­ty with­in wealthy soci­eties. The Unit­ed States, for exam­ple, the wealth­i­est coun­try in record­ed his­to­ry, also has the great­est degree of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in his­to­ry. Here, sui­cide rates have risen an aston­ish­ing 25% over­all and over 30% in half of the states since 1999. De Botton’s cul­tur­al expla­na­tion for wide­ly vary­ing sui­cide rates between dif­fer­ent kinds of soci­eties may help us under­stand that alarm­ing increase.

Para­phras­ing the work of soci­ol­o­gist Emile Durkheim, he tells us that “the cru­cial fac­tor behind people’s deci­sion to end their lives is not real­ly wealth or pover­ty…. It’s the extent to which the sur­round­ing cul­ture ascribes respon­si­bil­i­ty for fail­ure to indi­vid­u­als” rather than to exter­nal fac­tors beyond our con­trol. Ide­olo­gies of indi­vid­u­al­ism and mer­i­toc­ra­cy cre­ate gross­ly exag­ger­at­ed beliefs about our abil­i­ty to influ­ence events in our favor, and gross­ly exag­ger­ate the shame and stig­ma heaped upon us when we can­not do so.

This makes high-pro­file celebri­ty sui­cides seem to us the ulti­mate conun­drum, since such peo­ple appear, at least super­fi­cial­ly, to have it “all”: wealth, pow­er, tal­ent, sta­tus, and acclaim. But the celebri­ty cul­ture that ele­vates some peo­ple beyond the reach of ordi­nary mor­tals can also be pro­found­ly iso­lat­ing, cre­at­ing illu­sions of hap­pi­ness rather than gen­uine ful­fill­ment. We can nev­er tru­ly know what pri­vate griefs and per­son­al feel­ings of fail­ure and sor­row oth­er peo­ple live with. Tend­ing to our emo­tion­al needs, in spite of soci­etal pres­sures and nar­ra­tives, is crit­i­cal for sui­cide pre­ven­tion and can great­ly deep­en our care and com­pas­sion for our­selves and those around us.

Sui­cide is one of the top 10 caus­es of death in the U.S. right now. Call 1–800-273-TALK (8255) for help and sup­port.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Depres­sion & Melan­choly: Ani­mat­ed Videos Explain the Cru­cial Dif­fer­ence Between Every­day Sad­ness and Clin­i­cal Depres­sion

A Uni­fied The­o­ry of Men­tal Ill­ness: How Every­thing from Addic­tion to Depres­sion Can Be Explained by the Con­cept of “Cap­ture”

Stephen Fry on Cop­ing with Depres­sion: It’s Rain­ing, But the Sun Will Come Out Again

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Rho says:

    “Evi­dence of an unwit­ting neglect of one another..and our­selves”… Peo­ple tend to push oth­ers away. The art of “Com­mu­ni­ca­tion”.., indeed, the very will to com­mu­ni­cate with one anoth­er, died, drowned beneath the ris­ing tide of apa­thy.. The “Divide and Con­quer” strat­e­gy, aka the “Dumb­ing Down of Amer­i­ca”, was more suc­cess­ful than its cre­ators even dreamed it would be. Ever find your­self in a room full of “indi­vid­u­als”, none of whom are will­ing (or able) to speak to each oth­er..?? Sit­ting at “stop­lights”.., every­one hos­tile and mis­trust­ful of every­one else.., but ALL just SITTING the same ABSURD, POINTLESS “sit­u­a­tion”. Suicide..a “phe­nom­e­non” ? Hard­ly. I’d call it a cal­cu­lat­ed result. I remem­ber my par­ents, sit­ting in their la-z-boys, with their drinks, lan­guid­ly sit­ting through “COMMERCIAL PROGRAMMING”, bathed in TV glow. Sic Tran­sit Glo­ria Mun­di, baby.

  • Michael Snor says:

    I think you are on to some­thing, but you stopped just short. You are cor­rect that more devel­oped have high­er rates of sui­cide, but you weren’t quite able to say why. I think if you had con­nect­ed a few more dots you would have eas­i­ly found an answer.

    My opin­ion:

    It is proven that the more devel­oped a nation becomes, the less reli­gious it becomes. While the U.S. is still major­i­ty the­ist, the per­cent­age of those that attend church and believe is steadi­ly drop­ping. Stud­ies have shown that reli­gion is a stress reliev­er, main­ly because it gives us an answer to life after death. The thought of heav­en is more sooth­ing than just becom­ing non-exis­tent when we die. It seems to give us more rea­son for being alive.

    Now, I am not argu­ing whether or not an after­life is cor­rect, but this might be the most like­ly rea­son that sui­cide is more preva­lent in a sec­u­lar, more mate­r­i­al dri­ven coun­try.


  • Josh Jones says:


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