There are some things that we should neither like nor accept. Death is such a thing. Yet, it feels like our society is becoming complacent toward death. And not just complacent—accepting, embracing even.
Nowhere is this more seen than in the discussion around suicide.
Data published this year shows that America’s suicide rate has risen by 25% in roughly twenty-five years. The reports come at a time when awareness and efforts to address depression, mental illness, and anxiety—some of the major factors leading toward suicide—are actually on the rise.
National Suicide Hotline
At the same time, the suicides of high profile individuals—Kate Spade, Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain—seep into our collective consciousness—shining neon lights on what might be our next humanitarian crisis.
Suicide as an “Option”
It can’t be overemphasized that those who succumb to suicide do so because they feel, in the moment before attempting death, that an exit is the only way out of their struggle. However, in the aftermath of such a tragedy, the way we talk about suicide has shifted from raw shock to deliberate understanding.
We should try to understand the mentality of those who have made this choice. But when understanding slips into justification—when we begin to accept the death based on surmised reasons—it becomes unhealthy.
As public awareness of the issues that can lead to suicide increases, a fine line stands between empathy and acceptance. The former should be encouraged; the latter should be abhorred. The truth of it is we have become too sympathetic toward the choice of death. Twenty One Pilots even addresses this issue in one of their new songs, “Neon Gravestones.”
Our culture can treat a loss
Like it’s a win
and right before we turn on them
We give them the highest of praise,
and hang their banner from a ceiling
Communicating, further engraving
An earlier grave is an optional way
These lyrics aren’t extreme, nor are they delivered for shock value. There is real danger of a popular embracing of death-by-suicide for those who are already suffering, which is spurred on by media coverage of high-profile suicides, in which the personage is often sainted in the aftermath of tragedy.
A study found that, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death in 2014, “suicide rates in the United States spiked almost 10 percent . . . and spiked even more among men and those who ended their lives, like Williams, by suffocation.” Of course, a direct correlation can’t be proven, but the study concluded that Williams’ taking of his own life “might have proved the necessary stimulus for high-risk segments of the U.S. population (e.g. middle-aged men in despair) to move from suicidal ideation to attempt.” It also found that “the media industry can positively or negatively influence imitation suicides.”
Death as Acceptable
We hate to admit it, but our media, our government, and our societal institutions often operate as if some lives are worth more—as if some deaths are okay.
Part of the reason lies in how death has become cheap. We see it all the time. “24/7 news stations, the internet, satellite communications, digital photography, and a film and TV rating system that goes from G to NC-17 and beyond have transformed the world and the way it consumes and interprets information,” Andrew Nunnelly writes in The Harvard Crimson. “The kind of violence that once shocked [audiences] is now funneled in all day and every day.”
We see so much death that we no longer know how to react to it properly. And this has lasting effects. A National Institutes of Health study found that repeated exposure to violence and death, “both in real-life and through media, produces emotional and physiological desensitization characterized by diminished emotional distress and empathy, as well as reduced emotional and physiological reactivity [to further violence and death].”
The Challenge: Death as the Enemy, Life as the Way
Instead of accepting and embracing death, our society needs to revolt against death in all its unnatural forms—in all the little ways we’ve come to accept it. Mass shootings. Abortion. Suicide. Police Shootings. Government-sanctioned killings. War. Natural disasters.
Much of this means we need to take a stand against depression, anxiety, bullying, loneliness, dissatisfaction, and the rest of the toxic ingredients that make the dark brew that leads to suicide. In order to help prevent death, we need to cut it out at the sources. It’s a challenge. But for something as serious as death, sometimes a challenge to do better will help change things more than comfort can. We see this all the time in the news. When a mother or a father is interviewed after their child dies, most of the time they don’t say, “I need your comfort.” What they usually say is, “I just want them back. The bullying, brutality, school shootings, etc., need to stop.”
That’s the message of “Neon Gravestones.” Tyler Joseph, the writer of the song, who has been open about his own struggles with depression, said it’s the kind of message he would respond to—“a challenge.” He told AltPress, “I think at some point, ‘We hear you and we are here for you and we understand you’ . . . There’s a point where that doesn’t help. And what’s the opposite of that? That’s a challenge to step up and defeat something. To win.”
Scripture says, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” But it’s a war we’ve got to start fighting now.
I’m not disrespecting what was left behind
Just pleading that it does not get glorified
Maybe we swap out what it is that we hold so high
Find your grandparents or someone of age
Pay some respects for the path that they paved
To life, they were dedicated
Now, that should be celebrated
Cover photo by Jayden Brand.