Edvard Munch, ‘Melancholy’ (1894) via Wikimedia Commons

In one week, two celebrity suicides and a new CDC report seize public focus.

Headlines and news stories are everywhere, in all forms of media, about celebrity fashion designer Kate Spade ending her life last Tuesday, a Centers for Disease Control report (already in the works) released last Thursday, and celebrity chef and television host Anthony Bourdain ending his life the next morning, on Friday. This attention is long overdue and it has to last beyond a few news cycles.

The despair is so pervasive but awareness was so dim. People need light and hope.

So in January 2018 I started a new series on my radio program with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Medical Ethics Program at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, about mental health issues and what can and must be done about mental health suffering, because its many manifestations had grown alarmingly to epidemic proportions in the general public, especially but not exclusively among adolescents and young adults.

Dr. Kheriaty’s article ‘Dying of Despair’ started our discussions and carried over into more and more of them over the weeks and months of this year, each show drawing many callers from around the country with questions, halting or urgent, from people who suffer or who wanted help for a loved one who suffer, and they didn’t know where to turn.

Angus Deaton, a Princeton economist who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the intricacies of measuring human well-being, has been following what is now a national epidemic of suicide and depression. In a recent study, he found that since 1999 there has been an alarming national increase in deaths from drugs, alcohol abuse, and suicide—a trend that is especially pronounced among white Americans born since 1975. Deaton calls these “deaths of despair.”

Due to this epidemic of premature deaths, the overall life expectancy in the U.S. has begun to decline for the first time since the 1930s. In the year 2000, the outbreak of deaths of despair was concentrated in the Southwest (Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico). By 2007, the trend had spread to Appalachia, ­Florida, and the West Coast. By 2014, the epidemic was country­wide, found in both rural and urban areas in every region of the U.S. Add to this the drug overdose epidemic of the past few years—the worst drug crisis in U.S. history in terms of mortality—and these deaths of despair show no signs of slowing.

Depression is now the most common ­serious medical or mental health disorder in the United States. According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide…

We are witnessing a rising plague of melancholy.

Why? What happened to tip the social scales in this dreadful direction?

According to Deaton, the rise in suicides depends “on family, on spiritual fulfillment, and on how people perceive meaning and satisfaction in their lives in a way that goes beyond material success.” Family is the first society in which we gain social identity and security, and its ­declining fortunes have left many Americans vulnerable to despair…

Sociologists have documented the close connection between the retreat from marriage and declining religious participation, especially among the working class. As a consequence of these changes, many Americans have “lost the narratives of their lives,” as Deaton puts it. This leads to a loss of meaning and hope.

And, Dr. Kheriaty says, “we cannot live without hope.”

We can’t repair the culture fast enough to turn around this decades long decline in social bonds and mental health, but given how fast things can go viral through social media and pop culture activism and grassroots advocacy, the good resources that already abound can reach far more people with an ‘all-in’ effort to spread awareness, person to person, community wide or even nationwide campaigns. 

The new CDC report combines facts, statistics, maps and charts with practical advice. It’s loaded with guidance, links, resources, and just basic things you can do right now.

5 Steps to help someone at risk
Keep them safe.
Be there.
Help them connect.
Follow up.

Be the one to save a life

You are not alone, and help is available. If you are located in the U.S. visit The Lifeline. If you are located outside of the U.S., visit IASP

There’s information for states, communities, health care systems, employers, everyone.

California’s Catholic bishops recently released a detailed, resourceful, very well written pastoral letter Hope and Healing, on caring for those who suffer from mental illness. They worked with patients, their families, health care professionals, caregivers and pastoral care workers to craft this guiding help and direction.

Even those who do not have serious mental health problems can, to some extent, understand the experience of those who do: for not one of us is entirely free from periods of anxiety, emotional distress, troubling or intrusive thoughts, or strong temptations…We recognize that the experience of serious or chronic mental illness is unique and should not be trivialized; yet, when we address, this issue we need to overcome an attitude of “us” and “them,” which separates us one from another. Anyone may struggle with mental health problems; some require clinical attention or special forms of assistance. Even those who attend to the needs of others, including the pastors of the Church, are “wounded healers”…

Persons with mental illness often suffer in silence, hidden and unrecognized by others. Consider this stark contrast: a person with a medical illness, such as cancer, will usually receive an outpouring of sympathy and support from their parish and community; a person diagnosed with a mental illness – such as depression, crippling anxiety, or bipolar disorder – frequently experiences isolation and inadequate support, often because of the unjust social stigma of mental illness. This should not be so in our civic communities and cannot be so in our Catholic communities. Those living with a mental illness should never bear these burdens alone, nor should their families who struggle heroically to assist their loved ones. We Christians must encounter them, accompany them, comfort them and help bear their burdens in solidarity with them – offering our understanding, prayers, and tangible and ongoing assistance.

This is another focus of our weekly discussions on radio, and now Dr. Francie Broghammer brings her lively, engaging perspectives to the series and looks at the effects of social media on feelings of isolation, and the connection between religion and mental health. ‘If it really takes a village’, she says, ‘we have to be part of the solution by reaching out to the people around us.’ Instead of asking a co-worker if you can bring them back something from your coffee shop visit, ask if they’d like to join you for coffee. 

Talk with people who seem lonely, show them human interest and respect their dignity. Look them in the eyes, smile, say something kind.

Consider Dr. Kheriaty’s closing account in his article that opened the series:

A few years ago, a man in his thirties took his own life by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge (as more than fifteen hundred other people have done since the bridge was built). After his death, his ­psychiatrist went with the medical examiner to the man’s apartment, where they found his diary. The last entry, ­written just hours before he died, said, “I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.”

A smile alone may save a life.

(To be continued…)

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet