How is Suicide a Social Problem?

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

Suicide is often thought of as an individual problem.

The field of psychology has advanced our understanding of why people die by suicide and has contributed valuable insights into its treatment, but it can be limiting when emphasizing the individual at the expense of their broader social realm.

The problem with only viewing suicide as an individual problem is that we neglect the importance of social forces contributing to suicide.

So how is suicide a social problem?

The risk of suicide in a population increases when the social context fails to provide a healthy sense of purpose and belonging, contributing to an individual’s sense of contribution and connection.

What Sociology Says About Suicide

In his classic sociological text, Suicide, Durkheim develops a typology of suicide based on the concepts of ‘social integration’, and ‘moral regulation’. He identifies four different types of suicide: altruistic (high integration), egoistic (low integration), fatalistic (high regulation), and anomic (low regulation).

Altruistic suicide results from a very high level of integration into one’s social context; Durkheim gives the example of religious sacrifices, but suicide-bombers are a contemporary version of this.

Being so highly integrated, the individual’s own personal aims are completely aligned with those of their social group to the point of self-sacrifice. Although there is a moral distinction between various types of altruistic suicide, Durkheim used the word ‘altruism’ to describe group integration which differs from its popular use to denote acts of normative moral goodness.

Egoistic suicide results from a very low degree of social integration. Durkheim found that this type of suicide was common among the most educated populations in his day.

These populations were more prone to social disintegration because the higher levels of critical thinking lead to lower levels of tradition which promoted common beliefs and practices that bind people together.

Fatalistic suicide is a concept briefly mentioned in a footnote of Durkheim’s text, referring to suicide that results from a very high degree of social regulation (e.g. prison or slavery).

For some reason, Durkheim lists “young husbands” as being at risk of this type of suicide – but this is one of his more theoretical statements, lacking empirical support in the text.

Anomic suicide results from a very low degree of social regulation. Durkheim gives examples of large-scale social transitions such as revolutions or economic chaos in the market.

The fundamental issue causing this type of suicide is the loss of a guiding morality or a meaningful sense of purpose. This form of suicide is common in wealthy societies.

Suicide in Wealthy Societies 

Anomic suicide is most common among developed capitalist nations where wealth is abundant. Durkheim states:

“…those who suffer most are not those who kill themselves most. It is too great comfort which turns a man against himself. Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.”

When the central guiding force in our lives is the pursuit of material luxury, it becomes a bottomless pit requiring ever-more stimulation. As Durkheim states:

“Unlimited desires are insatiable by definition and insatiability is rightly considered a sign of morbidity. Being unlimited, they constantly and infinitely surpass the means at their command; they cannot be quenched. Inextinguishable thirst is constantly renewed torture…”

Viktor Frankl echoes this sentiment when he states:

“Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

And according to Frankl, suffering without meaning is what leads to despair.

In The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris makes a similar statement:

“Today’s middle class lives better than did the Royalty of not so long ago, and yet humans today don’t seem very happy.”

Chasing pleasurable feelings distracts us from meaningful pursuits and long-term goals, keeping us on the hedonic treadmill. Western ‘feel-good’ consumer culture fuels this problem with its quick-fix ideology of pain-free solutions. One only needs to take a look at the ridiculous workout equipment produced over the years to get the idea (“Take the work out of your workout… If you can sit, you can get fit” – The Hawaii Chair)

The Happiness Trap is based on two opposing concepts of happiness: short term pleasures (hedonic), and meaningful fulfillment (the good life). Too much focus on the hedonic pain-avoiding route prevents individuals from attaining deeper fulfillment since the latter form of happiness requires a degree of suffering and limitation on one’s impulsive desires.

Durkheim’s concept of fulfilling happiness occurs when the individual is in a state of sufficient social regulation, whereby the social role places limits on an individual’s individual aspirations. Contrary to Karl Marx, Durkheim argues that economic class categorizations can actually contribute to individual happiness and social harmony:

“This relative limitation and the moderation it involves, make men contented with their lot while stimulating them moderately to improve it; and this average contentment causes the feeling of calm, active happiness, the pleasure in existing and living which characterizes health for societies as well as for individuals.”

This leads Durkheim to a conclusion resembling the contemporary maxim that happiness is not about getting what you want, but about wanting what you have.

It is not economic class that provides this happiness in individuals, but the regulatory force it provides. Similar regulatory forces can be found in the family, as well as one’s specific occupational role.

The key is that 1) the individual feels a sense of fair compensation for their labor, and 2) that their labor is contributing to the collective. Without these elements, social regulation disintegrates into chaos or the despair of detachment from collective life.

This despair of detachment from collective life is most evident among veterans transitioning out of the military.

Suicide Among Veterans in Transition

As described in my massive article on transitional stress, a veteran’s sense of what matters in life may be uprooted during the transition.

In the memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan Wood writes the following lines regarding the conversations of his civilian co-workers:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:

“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”

As a Canadian veteran told me:

“I don’t necessarily miss being blown up and shot at, but you miss the purpose that comes with the combat.”

In an article called What Vets Miss Most Is What Most Civilians Fear: A Regimented, Cohesive Network That Always Checks On You, the author states:

The truth is that I had never been in such a supportive social environment in my life.… when Veterans leave military service, many of them, like me, are leaving the most cohesive and helpful social network they’ve ever experienced. And that hurts. Most recent Veterans aren’t suffering because they remember what was bad. They’re suffering because they miss what was good.

A comment below the article expands on this sentiment in terms of the concept of ‘trust’: “Veterans mostly miss bonds built on trust, demonstrated through actions not just words.” The experience of this demonstration beyond words can be witnessed in the following lines from the book, Memoirs of an Outlaw: Life in the Sandbox:

“We had relied on one another to have our backs and would have given our lives to protect the others. We had built a relationship that was stronger than just rank: we were a family, a brotherhood, sewn together by trust, respect, blood, tears, and sweat. Everything we had built together was slowly being torn apart.”

Training instills this commitment to the group, evidence of this commitment solidifies it, and the transition to civilian life can tear it apart.

The social cause of suicide is the macro-level we need to consider when trying to uncover reasons why certain populations experience higher rates of suicide. On the individual level, intense mental pain may be a fundamental driver of suicide.

Interpersonally, this pain may be the product of thwarted belonging, a sense of burdensomeness, and hopelessness about this situation. This interpersonal situation may be the product of broader social realities; for example, the lack of institutional support during social transitions has the potential to radically uproot individuals from a sense of social solidarity.

Suicide and the Sacred

In the book Suicide, Durkheim describes the function of the ‘sacred’ as an ideal that binds individuals together into moral communities; he states:

“It’s object is to raise man above himself and to make him lead a life superior to that which he would lead, if he followed only his own individual whims.”

Moral communities provide individuals with a sense of purpose by giving them a cause to serve outside themselves.

As described in the previous section, in his memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan A. Wood states how this sense of service assisted his recovery after leaving the military.

Bryan found himself unable to connect with friends whose infuriating black and white view of the war drove a wedge between them. At work, he could no longer derive a sense of purpose from the office job he had once held:

“I started looking through the work files…trying to find a purpose to any of them. Strangely, I could not find a single one that seemed to matter.”

After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

After a few years of feeling isolated and battling post-traumatic stress, Bryan received advice from a friend that would begin his healing process:

“If you try to do only for yourself, you’ll only get so far in life. If you reach out to touch other people, you can fix your own soul.”

‘Service’ is the outward manifestation of moral purpose provided by a sacred ideal. The military provides a high degree of moral purpose, leaving veterans vulnerable to feel lost and apathetic in civilian life.

A high degree of responsibility for one’s comrades, guided by the sacred ideal of public service, instills a strong sense of meaning and purpose for individuals in the military community, potentially leading to problems when transitioning to civilian life. An individual I interviewed stated:

“We want to serve, that’s our mantra… a lot of guys will join the paramedics, police, or fire-department, because they want to be in that position of service to other people… that’s who we are.”

Durkheim (1933) explains this sense of service as the following:

“…for the sentiment of duty to be fixed strongly in us, the circumstances in which we live must keep us awake.”

When the circumstances that keep one awake to a life of duty fades, one is thrown into a world of sleepwalkers; or as Durkheim states:

“When community becomes foreign to the individual, he becomes a mystery to himself, unable to escape the exasperating and agonizing question: to what purpose?”

Reducing suicide rates among veterans needs to go beyond individual counseling. It requires creating opportunities for veterans to regain a sense of purpose through the sacred bonds of communal life.

The first aspect of facilitating this sense of community requires governments to uphold their sacred obligation to veterans, demonstrating a degree of warmth, care, and timely access to necessary benefits and services.

The second aspect consists of creating opportunities for veterans to apply their skills in civilian life, regaining a sense of contribution to a common cause.

Conclusion 

Suicide is a social problem that concerns us all. Individual treatment is necessary, but it is not sufficient to solve the problem.

Trying to solve the problem in a narrowly individualistic way is like continuing to mop the floor when the sink is overflowing and the water is still running.

Sociological solutions to suicide involve community groups and programs that integrate the individual into something larger than themselves. In the specific case of veterans in transition to civilian life, it may involve a more focus on reintegration training efforts.

Humans are inherently social beings and therefore we cannot be alienated from that part of ourselves without a cost. This is why sociology has been such a passion of mine.

If you want to see my complete definition of purpose, you can check out my article here.

If you want to read my comprehensive post on suicidal desire, you can check out my article Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Person.

Looking for General Support?

BetterHelp.com provides online counseling. Check out their site here to see if their services are right for you Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily if you don’t feel supported.

Online-therapy.com is currently offering free support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Check out their free worksheets based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

To find local support, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors and therapists are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner.

Curious if online therapy works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.

If you’re just bored and looking for a new hobby, check out Skillshare. with thousands of classes to choose from, this online community allows you to gain new skills, network with peers, and find new opportunities. Check out their free trial here.

*As an affiliate partner, I may receive a commission if you sign up for a free trial. 


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45 Comments

  1. Conrad Kotze

    Well written, i love your idea of community. In our current consumer driven life the ssme alianation csn be identified. Thank you

    Reply
  2. Conrad Kotze

    Reblogged this on CONRAD KOTZE and commented:
    As most of those of you that read my posts know, I love community and our link to it. This piece structured the emptiness people feel in our current social Structure. Enjoy a well written piece.

    Reply
  3. thoughtfullyprepping

    About 1 in 10 rough sleepers in the UK are ex-mil. I know because I was one once.
    Thing is, apart from hating the world what drove them there, it is the loss of their forces identity, their “family” that destroys them.
    That and some being discharged with no regard to illness (PTSD) and occasionally the loss of their own personal family who can’t cope with the depths of despair and rage some vets suffer from..
    Finally some just arrive there following their experiences of working for civilian bosses.
    Bosses? Boy did I want to write another word for them.
    It’s true most ex go into paramilitary type jobs (security, emergency services) as they live, breath and shit duty, and crave a return to an organized life
    Such work is the nearest they can get to rejoining a family.
    For the lucky ones the time on the streets is brief as it was for me YET there is a ‘bro’ type of attraction within the ex-mil homeless and of course the bottle.
    The person who saved me wasn’t ex-mil though, a young street girl who ‘adopted me’ and made me stand up.
    I wonder why and how that happened occasionally.
    The slide, the street life, and the super fast recovery.
    Thanks Megan wherever you are.
    I also spit on the ‘assistance’ Forces Charities and religion gave (NOT!) me even though I was brave enough to ask for it. Apart from the Sally (Salvation) Army’s kindness, foraging and scavenging was my norm because of that.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m glad to hear you’ve recovered!
      I really like how you said, “apart from hating the world what drove them there, it is the loss of their forces identity, their ‘family’ that destroys them.” This is central to my own research on what it means to come ‘home’. The slide into homelessness can be the the tragic consequence of the loss of one’s military family affecting one’s ability to reintegrate into one’s civilian family, therefore potentially causing the individual to lose both. Glad to hear that the downward spiral into homelessness was promptly reversed by the care of a compassionate individual.

      Reply
  4. Cogito ergo sum

    Thanks, Durkheim is an interesting academic. I had almost forgotten Anomie and its role in social disorder. the Military can easily provide a shelter from the Anomie we see in our modern world today.

    Reply
  5. Reji Koduvath

    Feeling lonely, especially those without a family or the family roots to fall back, are the prime victims of loneliness. This becomes compounded with the fact that many veterans retire early in life and have many a productive years ahead of them.
    To make this stage of life meaningful, one got to find suitable employment for them. The society and the government has a role to play in this aspect. Reserving a part of the police and security related jobs for the veterans will go a long way.
    Keeping oneself engaged and busy through a job, community activities, pursuing various interests and passions one could not pursue while in the military are some suggestions. Always remember that “an idle mind is a devil’s workshop”. The communities, municipalities etc should encourage veterans to take up voluntary services like school crossing guard, assist in library etc.
    Most veterans while serving did not bother much about the veterans and when one becomes a veteran, they want the military to look after them. Most soldiers never think and visualise that one day they will be veterans. It is high time that this reality dawns on all soldiers.
    Preparing a soldier. moth psychologically and by training them in a skill they can adapt when they retire is the most important aspect, but is never given the weightage required.
    The faith in God – at least as an answer to all the unresolved puzzles of life – will surely help the veterans to tide over some difficulties. They can always blame it on God Almighty.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for taking the time to write this comment. I agree that finding suitable employment is key. Regarding theistic faith, I’m sure it assists many people cognitively process their experiences, but my concept of the sacred is fully agnostic.

      Reply
  6. hughcurtler

    Very interesting. I totally agree that to find happiness folks must come out of themselves and find a higher purpose than self-indulgence (which is rampant). However, I think you misuse the word “sacred” when you refer to “public service” as being “sacred.” It is a higher purpose than self, and assuredly a lofty purpose, but hardly sacred!

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for your comment. Perhaps I should have have been more clear and provided a deeper explication regarding my Durkheiman social realist conceptualization of the ‘sacred’. How would you define your concept of the sacred?

      Reply
  7. Beth Duffus

    Excellent post on an important, but often hidden problem. As a nurse for many years, I understand exactly what you mean by ‘sacred ideal of service’. You work as a member of a team, often united by adversity and certainly by a common aim – to serve your community. It is near impossible to recreate this in the modern, soulless, commercial workplace. Public service – in all its permutations – has much to teach our fragmented society. I wish it was listening!

    Reply
  8. irtfyblog

    I like your post. This is very informative. I’d like to add that I have never served in the military, however, my father was in Vietnam and served there for one year.
    Something that he has told me repeatedly is that the military trains up a soldier to have a mentality to destroy, kill and conquer…but after their tour is over, the military hands them a pink slip with a “thanks for serving” message but doesn’t do anything to retrain them for civilian service.
    I don’t know if this plays a role in PTSD or suicidal thoughts for ex-military persons, but it’s something to consider.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for your comment! From my sociological perspective, this is a major contributor to suicidal ideation.

      Reply
  9. God Made Dirt

    Excellent article. Love the quote at the beginning. Service to others definitely adds purpose and meaning to our lives.

    Reply
  10. justathoughtzzz

    Bryan found himself unable to connect with friends whose infuriating black and white view of the war drove a wedge between them. At work, he could no longer derive a sense of purpose from the office job he had once held: “I started looking through the work files…trying to find a purpose to any of them. Strangely, I could not find a single one that seemed to matter.”
    After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, Bryan’s sense of what mattered in life was uprooted. Referring to the conversations of co-workers he states, “I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

    Reply
  11. wanderlustress786

    Wow, definitely a population that deserves more of our attention and respect. Wishing you best of luck for your PhD!

    Reply
  12. dbp49

    A great article. So the question arises, what is the Canadian government doing in regards to all of this. Is your own research finding ears that are willing to listen? Are there departments willing to modify their current working strategies that just aren’t doing it…if you know what I’m asking?

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      My research is relatively new and I’m in the process of finishing my dissertation, so hopefully it will have the ability to affect change.

      Reply
  13. theveryeligiblebachelor

    Very interesting post – I wonder how many people who “live rough”, or are living outside society’s norms – even those not veterans of military service, are likewise in some way disenfranchised with our consumer addicted society?
    Great to bring attention to suicidal thoughts, and open up discussion on this often taboo subject.

    Reply
  14. observus

    Really well put… Your article holds a lot of clarity! A great read.:)

    Reply
  15. The GMLA

    Being a victim of a loss of hope myself, this is a deep issue. Depression is the root. That is something we can never forget and only upbringing communities end a loss of hope. There are always more no’s then yes’s in life and that takes continual uplifting.

    Reply
  16. brianbalke

    I encountered a framework for maturity delivered by a woman name Delorese Ambrose. It defined a cycle of power that begins with Powerlessness, and progresses through Association, Accomplishment, Introspection, Purpose and Wisdom. She called Accomplishment the “sexy” part of the cycle. It is being in the position of having a lot of people committed to having you around because you serve an important function. It is, in a sense, living for others.
    In a number of case histories (including Lee Iacocca), I have been made aware of how hard it is to fall from that place, to return to being just another person. People will kill to avoid that happening, or destroy themselves.
    That’s because the work of introspection is so hard. It’s realizing “Hey, that wasn’t me! That was what all those other people wanted!” It means standing up for ourselves, and saying: “Well, if I can satisfy all those people happy, then I can certainly satisfy myself.” It means throwing away all those external definitions of success, and deciding what YOU believe is important.
    From which we discover Purpose.

    Reply
  17. Morguie

    It is a crying shame that this happens to our finest and brightest young men and women…a thankless job…no truer words when you see their plight. Thanks so much for this sensitive and enlightening post. I pray for those who must return to a sense of hopelessness, joblessness, and an uncertain future. They need our attention and our help…most of all, our appreciation and love.

    Reply
  18. Argus

    Perhaps you should look a wee bit at The Legion.
    Not just a superficial look—take time out to go right into it (no, I don’t mean join) and look at what it’s all about. There’s a lot of psychology there, an academic study that should be relevant to your theme.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for the suggestion. From my experience in the Legion and talking to veterans about it, I for sure see a relevant academic study that could be done on it, especially from a historical perspective.

      Reply
      • Argus

        You did time in the Legion? Wow …
        But I was thinking more along the lines of a social study than historical; Legio patria nostra, remember?
        The legion looks after its own … compare to how many US ‘beloved and honored’ pop themselves off each week?

        Reply
  19. joshbertetta

    This is a tremendous piece Steve; the relationship between suicidal thoughts and loss of community particularly resonates with me. Wondering if you have ever read James Hillman’s “Suicide and the Soul”?

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you! I will check out that book!

      Reply
  20. fibromanmmj

    I am a disabled US Navy Veteran and I have found that it is harder to be a disabled veteran than it was to serving my country. For some time I struggled with thoughts of suicide even though it is not something I personally have ever believed in; there I was having thoughts and even planning how to do it. I never attempted but there were a few times I can close.
    Loneliness is not the only motivation for suicide. Pain is also a factor that need to be looked into with veterans. Veteran Hospitals need to become more equipped to handle long term pain in Veterans. Currently the policies for pain management only make the Veterans suffer more not less. If you have a chronic pain issue the Veterans Hospitals do not want to give you anything strong enough to handle the pain in fear you may become addicted. So they give you some motrin and send you on your way. After years of pain comes depression and eventually hopelessness. Pain is a slippery slop and can make someone feel worthless.
    The Veterans Hospitals need to start helping Veterans grow their own medicine or grow it for them. Cannabis saved my life. No fear of addiction since caffeine is more addictive than cannabis. There are many medical benefits to using cannabis. It helps treat pain, depression and even PTSD some of the most common aliments suffered by Veterans.
    “Spread Cannabis Knowledge!”
    FM

    Reply
  21. imaginenewdesigns12

    Thank you for following my blog and for this informative post. It provided me with more insight into what veterans experience when they return home from war. Before reading this post, I knew that veterans could experience both psychological and physical trauma from their time on the battlefield, but I did not realize how devastating loneliness and isolation were to some of them off the battlefield.
    I am glad that you are bringing attention to the plight of veterans and the problems they experience as they transition from military to civilian life. They do need more attention and help, and sadly they do not always receive quality care.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Thank you for your comment.. I’m glad this post was informative.
      I am a fan of long exposure photography and notice you have a post on it.

      Reply
      • imaginenewdesigns12

        I am glad you enjoyed my post on long exposure photography. Thanks for taking the time to like it and leave a nice comment! 🙂

        Reply
  22. Umair Raheel

    Thanks for following my blog and providing an opportunity to explore such a wonderful blog on the subject of sociology. I agree, the lack of pupose leads one to lose meaning to his life. In materialistic war of consumption, we worship money to buy goods and have self esteem. A society where rich is more respectful than poor, results in a social system where people lose hope and motivation to live.

    Reply
  23. The Perverted Sage

    Reblogged this on The Musings of a Digital Vagabond and commented:
    Even if you aren’t a vet returning from service, there is a powerful idea here that if we serve and live in an other-regarding way, in a way in which we are not the center of our own universe, we can truly deal with feelings of lonliness in a healthy way way before they conquer us.

    Reply
  24. thehobbler

    Hello. My name is Becky and I’m changing the world. Dyingwithstyle.org is my website. I’m disabled and my mission is to get other disabled people to go out into their communities more. It is so easy to seek isolation when you’ve been through severe trauma like military service, or a disabling illness or injury. Community is so vital for maintaining a will to live. I’m still killing myself in 2027, but in the meantime, I want to encourage and inspire. I’d love any ideas or suggestions you might have for my movement.

    Reply
    • steveroseblog

      Hi Becky,
      Thank you for reaching out to encourage and inspire. I’m just curious why you plan on doing this, particularly in 2027?

      Reply
      • thehobbler

        My youngest child will be 20 then. I’m ready now, but they deserve to have a mom at least through their childhood. I have multiple sclerosis, which is not terminal, but progressive in my case. I want to sign off before my kids are wiping my ass.

        Reply
  25. Priestess Bairavee Balasubramaniam PhD

    Good linking of the two concepts 🙂 and treated in a sensitive way. When I look at the theme of suicide and the sacred the themes that come to mind are martyrdom, crucifixion, stigmata and sacrifice. Would love to read more of your work – so I’ll just scroll through your blog 🙂

    Reply

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