The famous words at the beginning of Albert Camus’ 1942 essay Le Mythe de Sisyphe still strike a chord: “there is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” The power to deliberate on the question of whether “to be or not to be,” and then to act on this deliberation, is surely one of the most distinctive and determinative human qualities. What is the moral meaning of this act, if it has one? Does Catholic social teaching have anything to say about it?

The global rise in suicide rates, particularly among the young, has been well known for years. The World Health Organization published a short essay in 2001 characterizing suicide worldwide as “a growing epidemic.” Among those countries whose suicide statistics go back far enough to reveal trends, suicide rates have been uniformly increasing over the past two decades—some by up to 62%. Perhaps the most disturbing statistics, however, are those that reveal the acceleration of suicide among young people. Those under 45 now account for the majority of “successful” suicides, up over 6% from the 1950s. With the new millennium, suicide has become one of the top three causes of death for young adults worldwide.

My experience with college students over the past few years has greatly increased my awareness of the urgency of this issue among young people, even and perhaps especially among those in a collegiate environment. My first three years of teaching have seen two enrolled students commit suicide, and several other cases where a family member or loved one has done the same. I think particularly of one student of mine whose boyfriend committed suicide at the very beginning of the semester, and how broken and distraught she was the entire time she was in my class. I know some of the thoughts that were going through her mind, because she shared them with me: “can I pray for him?” “did I do anything wrong?” “did I not love him enough?”

What do we say to those who have experienced such a tragedy? How do we handle those who may be struggling with a suicidal frame of mind? (I hate that word- “handle”- which I feel can reduce the person in this situation to a mere victim, an object for study, analysis and- inevitably- chemical treatment.) Certainly professional therapists are indispensable and should always be consulted in these cases, but I also feel as though there is a place for considering the ways in which we as individuals and a community can help convey and reinforce the unconditional dignity and irrevocable value of each and every human person. If there are forces in society that convey the message that one’s existence needs to be justified or validated by some external measure of “success,” I feel it is our duty to convey just as clearly the message that the goodness of human life derives from God’s eternal creative act.

Over the past week, four high school students have committed suicide in this area of northeastern Pennsylvania. Some psychiatrists who were consulted by a local newspaper called The Citizens Voice have labeled these events a “suicide cluster,” a term which I had never heard before.

Madelyn Gould, a professor of psychiatry and mental health at Columbia University, remarked that

In a cluster, one death will beget another, with teenagers already teetering on the edge with depression or other mental illness seeing death as an escape from their internal demons and external pressures… The death of a peer, Ms. Gould said, ‘presents suicide as an option’ to those already suffering…. ‘It makes it more real,’ Ms. Gould said. ‘Someone can then start ruminating about it and really start considering it as a way to resolve their problems.’

The idea of a “suicide cluster” makes perfect sense to me. An act which before seemed distant and taboo becomes a realistic possibility in the here and now. “He has done it; why shouldn’t I?” The very act invites young people to begin exploring “the only really serious philosophical question” in a way that applies directly to them.

Perhaps the most thought-provoking part of this news story, though, was the struggle it reflected among the press and the community about how to respond to these deaths. Usually the media presumes a stance of reticence in the face of suicide, hoping to prevent exactly this kind of imitation. The line between comforting the grieving and vindicating the suicide can be a tough one to hew. As psychologist Frank J. Zanere put it in the article just cited:

 ‘When there is a suicide by a youth, that kind of lays down some modeling for other students that are vulnerable to that message that, “I did this and look at the attention I’m getting,” or “I did this, and I’m no longer in my pain….” You can see why others might be appealed to that message if they’re in a lot of psychological distress….’ Remembering victims of suicide can be precarious, particularly in the midst of a cluster.

‘When it comes to memorializing losses due to suicide, we have to be very cautious,’ he said. ‘We don’t want to glorify the event and bring undue attention to the cause of the death. What we want to do, appropriately, is of course give students a chance to grieve the loss because it’s a loss no matter what kind, the other part is to prevent imitative suicide.’

One recently developed principle of Catholic social teaching that applies to this alarming trend among the young is that of “social ecology” or “human ecology.” Originally expressed in the context of labor as “the social ecology of work” by John Paul II in Laborem Exercens, it was expanded in Centesimus Annus to include all of social life. The term “ecology” is employed analogically from the realm of environmental science, and indeed “the ecology of the human person” certainly includes the material ecosystem upon which we depend, but the term also points to the many other aspects of social life that determine the horizon and worldview of a community’s members.  The most recent Episcopal Synod on “The New Evangelization For The Transmission of The Christian Faith” very clearly explains all that is at stake in “the ecology of the human person”:

The decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology… It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves. The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social relations: in a word, integral human development (§21).

It is an interesting but dangerous question to ask why suicide rates vary so widely across the world. Why, for instance, is the suicide rate in Lithuania and South Korea three times as high as it is in the United States and Canada? Why, in turn is the suicide rate in the United States and Canada twice as high as it is in Mexico and Brazil? If we treated this data as any scientist would treat similar data about any other species, we would at least be able to conclude that there must be some environmental factor or factors at work. Can we explain these factors purely in terms of sociological, economic or political causality? Can we really treat this problem as something caused by and therefore remediable through empirical mechanisms? Can we not at least explore the more pedestrian question, on top of these others, of why so many more people in one society view their existence as conditionally justified and therefore disposable than those in other societies?

Some uncomfortable questions are worth asking at this point:

(1)    Should we be fully satisfied with the standard explanation that 90% of suicides worldwide are attributable to mental illness?

(2)  Is the “clinical depression” that makes suicide 22-36 times more likely a condition we can and should treat with psychological and pharmaceutical remedies alone?

(3)   Are we as a society justified in the judgment that suicide among the young is always and everywhere irrational while simultaneously deeming an individual’s decision to end their own life in old age as a potentially rational choice whose ultimate rectitude is determined only by the individual herself?

(4)  Can we as a society genuinely convey the unconditional worth and dignity of every human life while permitting and even celebrating the use and disposal of human life on account the personal, political or scientific benefit to be gained through such use and disposal?

(5)  Can we as a society continue to treat animals and the natural environment as “mere instruments” to be used and disposed of for our own benefit without that at the same time applying that instrumental mindset to ourselves and our children?

At the very least, I think it is safe to assume that the phenomenon of suicide tells us something about our “social ecology” that we as Catholics cannot ignore.