Today the New York Times reported that suicide has increased dramatically among middle-aged people in the United States, with disproportionately more men killing themselves. The article raised the question whether it was economic distress that was driving our people to kill themselves in larger numbers. The likely answer depends very much on how you define economic distress and the social context in which it manifests itself. There are many places in the world where poverty is far deeper and far broader and it is rare to hear about suicides. What distinguishes our context is deprivation in the face of plenty. It is not economic distress; it is economic and social abandonment, and a depraved indifference to the basic economic and social rights of people living in this country.
In the midst of a prolonged joblessness crisis, people suddenly find they are living in a society that does not respect their human dignity enough to guarantee fundamental economic and social rights – housing, healthcare, education, and, in the absence of decent work, basic income security. The comments from readers posted at the bottom of the article, in particular, reaffirm how facing the overwhelming fear of homelessness, social isolation, and abject misery has driven ever larger numbers of people to suicide. This psychic pain is also likely multiplied by a belief that the victims are somehow to blame rather than economic inequity. These men and women are victims of human rights abuses and must be viewed as such. We must insist that we are not just facing an economic crisis – in fact that we aren’t facing an economic crisis at all, as there are more than enough resources to meet all our fundamental needs – but a human rights and political crisis. We must remember these victims and, in the words of Mother Jones, “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”
Please see NESRI’s publication “Toward Economic and Social Rights in the United States”