Australian apologist JOHN SMITH has looked into the epidemic of suicide and depression in our culture.

John Smith
John Smith

I have rigorously investigated the literature and the surveys, relevant not only to suicide, but to the whole range of depression-related illnesses and dysfunctions. The most relevant and telling statement in brief comes, in my humble opinion, from the University of Pennsylvania in a scholarly paper investigating the tenfold increase in clinical depression over the last 30 years.

It claims that "Rampant individualism carries with it two seeds of its own destruction: first, a society that exalts the individual to the extent ours does will be ridden with depression; second, and perhaps more important, is meaninglessness... the larger the entity that you can attach the self to, the more meaning you can derive. To the extent that it is now difficult for young people to take seriously their relationship to God, to care about their relationship to their country, or to be part of a large and abiding family, meaning in life will be very difficult to find. The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning. Thus an individualism without commitment to the commons produces depression and meaninglessness on a massive scale."

Over-investment of meaning in the individual is a fatally flawed strategy for social advancement. It's interesting that Australian men currently in their 60s and 70s (socialised before the huge rise in individualism) are currently suiciding at their lowest rate since the great depression (1930s) whereas Australian men in their 20s and 30s (collectively) have just posted (in 1995) their highest ever suicide rate since statistics were first kept in 1881.

The University of Pennsylvania paper goes on to suggest a way ahead: "There is a final possibility, a more hopeful one: we can retain our belief in the importance of the individual, while scaling down the self's preoccupation with its own comfort and discomfort. At the same time, we can balance our commitment to individualism with a renewed commitment to the commons. A balance between individualism, with its perilous freedoms, and commitment to the common good should lower depression as well as make life more meaningful."

The trigger, which brings on depression and exposes the lack of meaning in an individual's life may be loss of job, desertion of spouse, conflicting parents and/or a host of other things. But none of these are new. What is new is the "learned patterns of helplessness." From loss to helplessness to hopelessness to depression to despair.

There are the greater background issues Martin Seligman addresses and the personal triggering issues - all must be addressed. Materialism and individualism are a deadly cocktail. Self-esteem lessons will do little to rescue the soul from the meaninglessness and learned helplessness of a society which avoids civic responsibility to teach its newer citizens the great values and meanings which must underlay any healthy community. The antidote is no quick fix, simplistic answer. This suicide plague is a symptom of a greater crisis than western culture has ever experienced in its brief few hundred years of modernity. Don't rush it and don't politicise it. This is about the death of God and the death of humanity. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.