Is There a Better Approach to Suicide Prevention?
Approaching suicide as an "Everything Problem"
Is there a better approach to suicide prevention?
The topic itself is almost taboo to talk about.
But not talking about it, of course, is part of the problem.
So, let’s talk about it.
Because there may be a better way to approach it.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year olds.
These are young people. And that number includes only those who actually go through with the act. It doesn’t include those who attempt it. (Source: WHO)
Individuals are twice as likely to die from suicide as homicide. (Source: IHME)
In other words: you’re less likely to be killed by someone else than by yourself.
But it gets even worse. After all, the facts above refer to cases that get verified and documented. What isn’t included here are “deaths of despair,” or suicide by other means, including the slower kinds that take years. Addictions, for example.
The problem isn’t that nobody cares.
Everybody seems to care. But few seem to have ideas on what to do about it.
So, what do we usually do about it?
The most common answer, it seems, is to stick to small talk.
It’s understandable. These things can be hard to talk about. These days, it can be hard to get a word in edgewise, about anything. Judging by our actions, the solution seems to be talking more, and more, and after that, even more, about politics and celebrities. The world just can’t get enough, apparently, about politics and celebrities.
Beyond those topics, we’re often in uncharted waters. And all too often, we hardly know what to say. Our pleasant distractions come at a hidden price. The modern world seems to leave us unarmed and vulnerable, spiritually unequipped to deal with life outside of our wall of comforts.
Small talk doesn’t work, of course.
Not in the long run. Eventually, it becomes part of the problem. Life in the shallows, for those who aren’t so easily amused by it all, can get claustrophobic.
The next response in line is often to throw money at the problem.
To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail, as the saying goes. To someone with money, every problem starts to look like something that can be solved with money, it seems.
But money is typically a means to an end. If the end isn’t effective, money gets wasted. Money in itself, in other words, is neutral. It can either help or harm, depends on the end it’s directed to.
Then there are more serious answers.
Many have made heroic efforts toward studying the topic of suicide. These efforts have yielded some helpful information about the problem, some of which we quoted above. They’ve also produced floods of charts, graphs, and statistics, which reveal the kinds of things that charts, graphs, and statistics reveal.
In all this, there’s no shortage of recommended solutions.
For example, in “Preventing suicide: A global imperative,” a report released by the World Health Organization in 2014, the authors summarized many prevention efforts fairly thoroughly. In the section “The way forward for suicide prevention,” they recommend measures such as: “Raise awareness.” “Engage the media.” “Mobilize the health system and train health workers.” And so on. Some recommendations are better than others. One “Area of strategic action” is to develop a strategy.
In addition to these are other efforts: 800-numbers and hotlines, fundraising (see the money solution above,) and advertising campaigns that encourage individuals to reach out and talk to someone.
All of these can be help. If any solution is genuinely effective, all the better.
That said, there’s an elephant in the room that needs to be pointed out here.
You don’t solve suicide by trying to solve suicide.
Suicide is an “Everything Problem.”
An Everything Problem is a difficult problem that’s interconnected with other difficult problems.
Everything Problems typically don’t get solved by attacking them directly.
Like many other aspects of in wrestling with The Big Questions of life – happiness and meaning, for example – the important stuff happens indirectly.
Some problems are difficult to solve, but much easier to prevent.
So, how do you approach an Everything Problem? By taking a wider look at the other difficult, interconnected issues. They’re often seen as complicating factors that are distractions from the main problem. But the opposite approach – embracing them, instead of avoiding them – leads to a wider view of the overall system.
Suicide isn’t an isolated problem.
It’s connected to a web of other issues. It’s link #8,974 in a chain of tens of thousands of other links.
It doesn’t just suddenly and magically drop in out of the blue and appear out of nowhere. There’s an entire storyline behind every case.
But this can all be said more plainly.
Sometimes, life is hell.
Suicide is no profound mystery.
The pain of life can sometimes seem unbearable. The world can sometimes seem like a giant insane asylum. The amount of seemingly pointless suffering can sometimes seem overwhelming.
That is something almost everyone is familiar with, despite what we often pretend to be on Instagram. And in this mindset, when it gets severe, a desperate solution can seem like a genuine answer. A profoundly mistaken answer – a permanent solution to a temporary problem – but still, a kind of answer nonetheless.
The world teaches us how to dissect frogs and do leaf collections. But when it comes to figuring out how to deal with suffering, endure it, and find meaning in it, we’re often left on our own. Either that, or we’re offered “answers” that often seems wildly preposterous. In the trenches of life, we can often find ourselves spiritually unequipped.
Band-Aid solutions to this are often inadequate.
Serious problems require equally serious medicine. Today, profoundly difficult challenges are sometimes treated with what are essentially platitudes, sugar pills, lab experiments, or an equivalent of these. In many cases, we need something stronger.
No problem is isolated. Every problem is interwoven in the complexities of our lives. Everything Problems have to be considered in the context of everything they’re connected to.
So, what other difficult problems is suicide connected to?
Abuse. Dysfunctional relationships. Drug and alcohol addictions. Bullying. Anxiety and depression. Financial and professional challenges. Past trauma. A world that sometimes seems to have gone completely insane. A dehumanizing and demoralizing culture.
We could go on, but you probably get the point.
Labcoats sometimes study this problem like it’s a frog to dissect. They seem to want a clean, easy, objective, blame-free, sanitized, antiseptic, shrink-wrapped, easy-to-swallow, easy-to-sell, highly profitable solution to all this. Dealing with actual messy, wriggling, won’t-follow-the-rules, won’t-color-in-the-lines, won’t-do-what-they’re-told humanity – well, that hasn’t quite been figured out yet. Humanity is often messy, unpredictable and untamed, and refuses to be otherwise. To really crack that one, well, they usually say they need more funding. They haven’t quite figured that one out yet.
But imagine these stories in context.
Let's imagine someone individual working at a (800)-number suicide prevention hotline.
And Hamlet calls in.
He’d probably say something like this.
“Hey, so, my uncle murdered my dad, and married my mom, and took over my dad’s job, and everyone seems to be carrying on as if everything is just fine. It’s infuriating. So, somehow, I feel like the right thing to do is to serve my uncle some kind of justice. Some serious justice. But at the same time, I’m also not totally sure about it all, and that route also doesn’t seem totally right. So, I’m carrying a pretty big burden here. And through all this, I think I’m kind of having some kind of existential crisis, because I wonder about the point of the whole thing, anyway. I mean, you can either “be” – you can live, and suffer through life, and endure all the painful knocks it hits you with – or, you can ‘not be’ – which, in some ways, seems a lot simpler. So then, what’s the answer? What’s the point? Why should I ‘be’?”
So, imagine the poor guy on the other end of that phone line. He’s a volunteer, working for the hotline, who was next in line to take that call. And he just happened to get Hamlet.
What, exactly, is he supposed to say?
That’s the thing.
To suddenly appear in chapter 37 of a novel means suddenly jumping into a tangled, complicated plot with thousands of moving parts.
The Band-Aid over bullet wound approach has limits.
It can stop bleeding. In some cases, it can prevent a tragedy. It can be effective an necessary as a first line of defense.
But we need more than a first line of defense. Paramedics are good, as first-responders. Setting up a basic triage is necessary, and good. But eventually we need hospitals. There’s a need for solutions beyond Band-Aid and First Aid. There a need for answers that work at the level of Everything Problems.
What Hamlet’s asking about is something bigger.
Hamlet, in a nutshell, is asking about the meaning of life.
What’s the point? Why endure all the suffering life deals us? Where is all this leading?
This brings us to the second part of Everything Problems.
They connect up, very quickly, with The Big Questions of life.
What’s it all about? Why are we here? How should we live? Why do we suffer? What’s the point? What the heck is going on?
Every Everything Problem is just a few steps away from The Big Questions. It’s an existential Seven Shades of Kevin Bacon. None of us live too far from the core questions at the heart of life.
These aren’t abstract philosophy bull-session fodder.
Camus understood this.
“I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of all questions.”
He was lucid on this point. He was perhaps more clear, it seems, than anyone else on this matter, before or since, except for Tolstoy.
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.”
“Whether the earth of the sun revolves around the other is a matter of profound indifference. To tell the truth, it is a futile question. On the other hand, I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living…”
Much of modern life seems to force a frenzied obsession on matters of “profound indifference.” We’re pressured to learn state capitals and memorize the atomic weight of helium, but on the question of “whether life is or is not worth living,” we’re left to ourselves. Or even worse, the question is never even asked. And even worse: even mentioning it is discouraged. And it’s discouraged, often, by those who would rather push us into working on leaf collections.
Talking someone back from the brink, again, is a good thing. It can save lives, and it’s a heroic endeavor.
But the more bedrock answer lies in preventing what takes someone to the brink in the first place.
So then, what’s a better response to this?
If suicide is an Everything Problem, what would an “Everything Solution” look like?
A genuinely effective answer to suicide doesn’t mean merely talking someone back from the brink, over and over again. The Everything Solution approach works to prevent individuals from getting to the brink to start with.
Suicide isn’t solved merely by “tackling the suicide problem.” It’s solved by fostering an environment where the problem itself never arises to start with. The idea of suicide never being considered as even an option might be implausible – especially given our current state of affairs – but it’s a target to aim for.
How? By taking aim at the tangled, interconnected web of causes that takes someone to the brink.
Instead of working to mop up the aftermath, the Everything Solution works toward prevention.
In a few words, we could describe it as “Existential Fitness.”
It’s a deliberate effort to genuinely ask The Big Questions of life.
And it’s an effort to find better answers to those questions.
This happens naturally in life. Usually, we do this only when we have no other choice – only when, for example, we’re forced into the throngs of an existential crisis.
But this approach works to get in front of the ball. It’s proactive instead of reactive.
Existential Fitness, in other words, is a shorthand way of describing a positive approach to delving into the core riddles of life, and finding better answers than we currently have. Instead of avoiding existential crisis at all costs, it actively seeks them out, with the intention of doing it properly – in a way that sets a life on a more firm foundation. The intent is to immunizes an individuals’ philosophy of life against collapse, so it’s less fragile, more sturdy, and more likely to be strong enough to endure the tests and trials of life.
Hopefully the description of this doesn’t trivialize what is clearly a serious matter. This could be discussed at great length, but the idea here is to simplify something that could be extremely complex. Overwhelming complexity, these days, is part of the problem. The solution here is two words that hopefully point to much more.
Like the foundation and the first few floors of a skyscraper, these Big Questions serve as the basis for much of our lives. And our thinking about our lives serves the basis for much of our happiness or misery, sense of meaning or meaninglessness.
Everyone is a philosopher, after all.
The only question is whether a person is aware of their philosophy, or not.
"Existential Fitness" could be seen simply as a proactive effort to raise our game in areas of relationships, psychology, and spirituality. In the way that physical fitness focuses on getting our bodies in shape, Existential Fitness works to get our minds, hearts, and souls in shape.
This might sound overly simplistic. Yet we sometimes find ourselves navigating life without having learned some very basic skills in these areas. When someone confronts The Big Questions, it’s incredibly easy to wander into wild, dangerous, uncharted realms, rife with bad ideas and blanketed in a fog of confusion.
Yet there are paths through this fog. Small doses of clear communication, a dash of clear thinking, a helping of logic and empathy, and some time engaged in honest conversation can sometimes work wonders. In some cases, it doesn’t take much. It’s the kind of thing once happened naturally, when communities and culture were more common. But today, much of that is either evaporating or already gone. If we really are living through "The Death of God," in other words, and the glue that once brought people together, offered honest conversation and provided sanity checks is disappearing – more deliberate measures can become necessary.
This might sound far-fetched.
But this vision of Existential Fitness – or whatever you’d want to call it – is nothing really new or different.
It builds on what is already working in many places. Addiction recovery groups, for example, are based on honest conversation that touches on all of these issues. Floods of individuals devour self-help books or look to Oprah for guidance through these jungles. Millions of individuals are already working along these lines, in their own ways. Everybody either asks The Big Questions, or – more often – assumes answers to them, without ever stopping to examine those assumptions.
The process of stopping to examine assumptions – and to explore what might be better answers –already happens, every day. In a way, this is just giving it a name. Because Everything Solutions aren’t simply one specific course of action.
They point toward an interconnected web of actions.
If an Everything Solution could be boiled down to eating up carrots instead of peas, or peas instead of carrots, it would be simple. But it would be the simplistic, Band-Aid approach that draws a straight line from A to C by way of B. It’s not how this works.
Everything Solutions involve swimming in deeper waters. Instead of standing in a boat, like a tourist of life, it means diving in.
In a few words, then, it means fostering a culture, or adopting a certain way of life.
That probably sounds vague, and perhaps even evasive. But if someone asked how to become a great artist, or businessperson, or parent, any single answer would probably sound vague or evasive as well. There are general platitudes, and specific tips, and everything in between. All of it could range from the extremely simple to the extremely complex. So, it’s difficult to pin down. That doesn’t mean there’s no answer – there definitely is. And it doesn’t mean everybody is in it completely by themselves. They aren’t.
But reducing it down to a simple formula isn’t easy.
There are some key ingredients, however.
Honest conversation, for example. The basic practice consists of questioning and inquiry in pursuit of lofty ideals. Studying what has already worked in the past, and what hasn’t. These are all good things to start with.
But there are also more specific arenas where all of this could play out. In relationships, it could mean basic skills in creating culture of genuine respect and mutual understanding instead of friction, antagonism, and mutual character-assassination. It would mean getting educated on how relationships actually work, and the underlying dynamics that make them either blissful or hellish. In regards to psychology, the focus would be on mental clarity and emotional strength, not mere symptom-removal, the label-and-drug cycle, and many of the other ways psychology drives us crazy. It would mean an active effort to genuinely know ourselves in a way that we become more comfortable in our own skin. On the spiritual side of things, it would mean an effort to avoid the nonsensical and toward the illuminating and enlightening. It would mean spiritual approach that is satibferas (a spiritual approach that isn’t blind faith and encourages reason and science) and experiential. It would avoid the Existential No-Man’s Land, and other hazards. It would mean an approach to Inner Work, or working on ourselves, that focuses on what’s effective, and avoids what isn’t.
This might sound either wild, or like common sense.
Understood properly, this approach is essentially “common sense” – that’s borderline obvious – with a little extra throttle behind it.
But as Orwell mentioned, sometimes seeing the obvious can be pretty difficult. In that sense, this is really nothing terribly new. It’s taking what we’re already doing that’s working, removing distractions and fluff, and redirecting misguided efforts that run contrary to it. Floods of messages today already encourage empowering ourselves, distracting ourselves, and enjoying ourselves. This encourages knowing ourselves.
There’s plenty in the culture today that encourages "Soft Nihilism," for example. (DeadPool flirts with it, as one case study). Which is to say, there are some forces at work today that – either deliberately or not – drive the messaging that life is meaningless, that The Big Questions of life (the “existential riddles” we all face) are either unknowable, senseless, or uninteresting, that the only point in life is to find some game in life (chasing money, status, fame, pleasure, power, etc) that’s amusing enough to keep us interested until the clock runs out. Angst should be ignored, human potential is either nothing much or the mundane-with-a-big-blast-of-hype, happiness consists in nothing more than a fragile arrangement of creature comforts, and there is no vision of a higher life beyond that.
Often, the forces that work against Existential Fitness aren’t necessarily malicious.
Companies that make such things as bacon-doughnut-fried-chicken-burgers, for example, aren’t necessarily, deliberately trying to work against our good health, long lives, and physical fitness. Often, they’re just trying to make a few bucks by giving us what we want.
So beyond a certain point, it’s up to us – the customers – to decide what we want.
So, part of this could be described as a “culture.”
There’s a general atmosphere – sets of assumptions, beliefs, emotions, feelings, vibes, desires, and so on – that create a certain mood, for lack of a better word. This mood provides fertile ground for certain things.
In this sense, some atmospheres make suicide either more common or more rare.
For example, the current state of modern life, according to some research, creates fertile ground for obesity. It does the same for depression and suicide. It blasts advertising, for example, that says “talk to someone.” Yet when anyone actually does try “talk to someone,” they’re ridiculed, shunned, or sued. Or worse.
A longer-term approach to improving this would mean actively shaping a culture where taking one’s own life would simply make less and less sense.
This would mean having an answer to the meaning of life that is so strong and clear that any alternative would seem absurd and incoherent. Why? When there are much better answers, bad answers are naturally less attractive.
The trick, then, is finding them.
This might seem hopelessly naïve.
Fair enough. Suggestions for better ideas are more than welcome. Just drop it in the box. That said, what seems naïve might eventually reveal itself to be exactly the opposite. This approach builds on what already works. The idea that suicide can only be addressed by direct, linear, top-down, simplistic, heavy-handed solutions designed by C-suite executive committees might prove, at some point, to be more naïve.
If certain problems are prevented early, desperate solutions to those problems will become rarer naturally and organically, not through some kind of artificial compensatory response.
The best solution to certain problems isn’t solving them once they arrive. It’s making it so they never even appear.
Many individuals have struggled with these problems before. Many, throughout history have wrestled with The Big Questions to a profound degree, deep in the bowels of life, and have come out better for it. Periods of bleakness have sometimes been followed by experiences of bliss. Experiences of tremendous suffering have sometimes served as crucibles. In more than a few cases, these experiences have shaped sufferers into tremendous individuals. To face suffering directly, and survive it, is to emerge with something to say, and something valuable to offer.
There’s a great deal we can learn in all this.
D. T. Suzuki once remarked that there are certainly reasons justifying pessimism. He is correct. These can’t be sugar-coated away. We shouldn’t try to.
But there are also, in ways just as certain, reasons for hope.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides 24/7, free and confidential support: