When we talk about suicide, we are not in the realm of studying genetics, chemical pathways and the like. We are in the realm of sociology. Using massive amounts of data sociology can describe which populations are at greatest risk and when suicide rates start climbing in a particular population, but the reasons for it are often unclear although interpretations have always abounded. These interpretations are important because getting them right can inform us on what personal steps need to be taken and what public policies can help alleviate the suicide rate. Wrong ones are of little help. Emile Durkheim in his famous 1897 study of suicide, the first such sociological work, found that divorced men were far more likely to commit suicide than divorced women. He attributed this fact to a very Victorian view of females. The basic data is the same today—divorced or widowed men are more likely to commit suicide than divorced or widowed women—but no one is adopting Durkheim’s interpretation.
In the May 30th New York Times, columnist David Brooks addresses the devastating increase in teen suicides and hypotheses that it is associated in a change in the way teens and most of the rest of us communicate and interact with each other. But his hypothesis is not helpful in pointing out what needs to be done to stem the crisis. We cannot wind back technology. It is here and it is used in myriad different ways by both teens and adults. I found his article frustrating.
Then just today in the New York Times there was another, researched based, article about the very same issue which was much more nuanced and cautious about linking excessive interaction on social media with suicide. It could work the other way around, that teenagers already prone to mental health problems are drawn to social media in unproductive ways. There is some good meat in this article and some sensible suggestions. I look forward to seeing more as we address this most serious health crisis.