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An Unspoken Epidemic?

How silence today may result in millions of American deaths tomorrow.

According to the statistics, times aren’t just tough for thousands upon thousands of Americans, they’re literally unbearable.

In the years between 2000-2007, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention said that approximately 2.3 million people in the United States had intentionally taken their own lives; although official stats from the last four years have not been released to the public, the current suicide rate is estimated to be the single highest in the nation’s history, eclipsing even the monumentally high rate of 1933--a point in time in which one quarter of the nation was unemployed.

“There is a clear and direct relationship between rates of unemployment and suicide,” the American Association of Suicidology says on its webpage. “Of current concern,” the site reads, “is the high rate of home foreclosures.” The assertion that the organization makes is anything but debatable; all one has to do is flip through the obituary pages of any small town newspaper to see just how pervasive economics-spurred suicide truly is.

On average, 34,000 Americans commit suicide each year. That’s roughly 90 suicides a day, at a rate of one suicide every 15 minutes.

In July, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics released updated findings regarding the economic wellbeing of the American citizenry. While the national unemployment rate hovers around 11 percent, another 16 percent of the nation is quantified as being underemployed - that is, people working part-time jobs that are unable to land full-time employment. With a 5 percent margin of error factored in, it’s feasible to state that nearly a third of the nation finds itself incapable of securing gainful employment.

Locally, the numbers are only mildly cheerier than they are in the rest of the nation; with an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, Cobb County has a rate that’s nearly one percent lower than the state average (although broken down further, the unemployment rate for Kennesaw is higher than the state average and much closer in resemblance to the national average of 11 percent.)

Recession-era suicide, obviously, is something that is extremely underreported in mainstream media. Families don’t want to publicly acknowledge that their loved ones killed themselves, and the act itself remains stigmatized within our society. As one such example, up until very recently, active military personnel who commit suicide weren’t eligible for full military funerals, with government officials refusing to send condolence letters to the families of overseas suicide victims.

Although suicide is unquestionably a common act in American culture, they way we approach and analyze it is peculiarly cautious, reserved, and in many instances, almost superstitious. Our inability to address the matter in a forthright manner, tragically, only ensures that the cycle of violence continues.

I once had a professor tell me that if one wanted to understand a specific culture, he or she had to examine that culture’s advertising. Surely, if you’ve driven around the Kennesaw area, you’ve seen one or two billboards from American Family Insurance. The ads feature colorless images of people, often looking extremely downcast, with slogans such as “is the American Dream dead?” plastered all around them.

A more recent ad campaign sponsored by NeighborWorks advises those facing foreclosure to turn towards Homeownership Preservation Foundation hotline counselors in times of great duress. Obviously, such ads are addressing the scarred psyches of a recession-ravaged middle class; we all know that the jobless demographic is at risk for suicide, but even when attempting to offer services to those same at risk individuals, we feel the need to mask out acknowledgement of the suicide risk itself. Instead of recognizing the issue, we use euphemisms, and go well out of our way to manipulate the terminology to avoid addressing the reality at hand.

As a culture, it took us almost five years to acknowledge that the economic downturn has directly influenced us as human beings. For many of us, it wasn’t until we watched several of our family and friends’ homes get foreclosed that we accepted the profound direness of the times; and from there, many of us couldn’t recognize it fully until we lost our own homes. The connection between economic stress and suicide is readily apparent, and sadly, I believe it will take just as long for the majority of us to recognize the epidemic suicide rate as we did the severity of the recession as a whole.

This Sunday, we will commemorate the horrific day 3,000-plus human beings lost their lives on American soil. We will remember, and pray, and shed tears, and show gratitude for our own lives and safety. The day before that, however, is also a day of remembrance and recollection: Each Sept. 10, millions of people across the world observe World Suicide Prevention Day, an internationally-recognized event dedicated to informing, educating and addressing people about the intercultural problem of suicide.

Thousands of people died ten years ago, but we’re staring down the deaths of millions of Americans currently -- every last one of those deaths is indeed preventable, but unless we begin a public dialogue, we might as well be ignoring such life-saving measures altogether.

 

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