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Why are so many American white men killing themselves and others? And what’s to be done about this phenomenon?…

Not long ago I was traveling back from a speaking engagement when I pulled into a Waffle House for breakfast. Waffle House is usually populated by working-class men at that time of morning, and this day was no exception. The exception was that I was joined at the counter by a well dressed, middle-aged white woman. Somehow we got involved in a conversation about how unhealthy my breakfast was.

She smiled and said, “Judging from your appearance, you are far more likely, statistically speaking, to die not from too many bacon-and-egg breakfasts, but from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

After choking on my coffee, I discovered that she was a psychiatrist who worked with families of suicide cases. It was from her that I first learned about the epidemic of suicide among the white male population in the USA.

When there is an epidemic of violence that targets a particular racial, ethnic, or age group, our media and the voices in our society usually erupt in compassion, concern, and outrage. However, there is an epidemic of violent deaths happening every week in America from which we turn our heads and look away.

It is the unpredictable, irrational anarchy of suicide among white men. The statistics are undeniable: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that there are nearly 45,000 deaths by suicide each year, and that this number is most likely inaccurate because of under-reporting due to the stigma of suicide. Over the last decade, the rate of suicides has climbed steadily and seven out of ten who take their lives are white men—most of them between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-five.

Not only are white men killing themselves, too often they are taking others with them. Those who go on gun-killing sprees are most often white men, and usually they end up turning the gun on themselves as the police close in. The recent bombings in Austin, Texas, and the killing spree at the concert in Las Vegas are just two examples. These irrational murders are not primarily murder. They should be viewed as suicides in which the killer tries to take as many as possible into the dark with him.

Furthermore, the rate of violent suicides masks an even greater problem. Deaths among white, middle-aged males from prescription-drug overdose, alcohol-related liver failure, and road accidents linked to alcohol abuse are also rising dramatically. These cases are termed “slow suicides.” The rate of suicide deaths in the USA is skyrocketing, while in Germany, the UK, Sweden, and France, they are either holding steady or declining.

Why are so many American white men killing themselves and others? Princeton researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton refer to these as “deaths of despair” and trace the causes to various social problems—especially the economic problems of unemployment. “These deaths of despair have been accompanied by reduced labor force participation, reduced marriage rates, increases in reports of poor health and poor mental health. So we are beginning to thread a story in that it’s possible that [the trend is] consistent with the labor market collapsing for people with less than a college degree. In turn, those people are being less able to form stable marriages, and in turn that has effects on the kind of economic and social supports that people need in order to thrive.”

Yes, of course, it is an economic problem. It is also a problem, as the authors suggest, of the breakdown of the family, increased mobility and therefore instability, the lack of extended family support systems and perhaps a clutch of other social ills. However, Hilaire Belloc said, “Every argument is a theological argument,” and what the secular researchers never stop to consider are the philosophical and theological roots of despair.

When Stephen Paddock locked himself in a Las Vegas hotel room and started shooting innocent concert goers the country was bewildered, frightened, and horrified. When he shot himself we were not surprised. It happens too often and with increasing and terrifying regularity. What jumped off the page for me, however, in the reporting of the event was the line in a report about Paddock, “he had no religious views.” The irony is that the detail was reported as a positive trait of Mr. Paddock. The implication was, “Religious people are extremists who kill wantonly. He had no religious views, therefore we can rule out religion as the cause for his murderous act.”

But the fact that he had no religious views, may actually be the best pointer towards the root cause of the problem. If the suicides and murder-suicides that we are witnessing do indeed spring from despair, then what is despair and what is the cause of despair?

Despair is the lack of hope and the lack, therefore, of anything to live for. The cause of such despair is not simply unemployment, divorce, family breakdown, or the instability caused by these factors. Many people survive unemployment, divorce, and family breakdown without drifting into nihilistic despair. At the heart of despair is the reality of facing the great darkness and realizing that it is not only dark, but also it is empty—that there is no one there. This is greater than mere loneliness. This is default atheism: not an intellectual rejection of religion, but real, terrible existential isolation: the loneliness of existence without anyone else and especially without God. This darkness is felt more than it is thought. These atheists do not reason their way into nihilism. Instead, they simply stare into the dark.

As society has drifted into relativism and Nietzschean nihilism, we should not be surprised that it ends where all nihilism must end: in madness and suicide. The suicides and murder-suicides may be fueled also by the mind-bending drugs taken by the emotionally and mentally ill, but below even the drug problem there remains the deeper problem of existential loneliness and the problem of despair. Perhaps the personality-altering drugs simply lower the barriers most people have that prevent their despair from ending in violence of self-destruction.

What’s to be done? It is not good enough to simply say, “People need to turn back to God and turn back to faith.” The solution is not on the individual level alone, nor is it in community programs that address the external symptoms—worthy though they are. Despair can only be turned to hope when enough people together turn to God and turn to one another in love and concern. That can only be done by re-building brick by brick the faith, the family, the church and the community.

Then small communities of civilization and love may be constructed which, in the long term may become the building blocks of a new civilization —not of nihilistic self-destruction, but of hopeful reconstruction.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Perhaps one factor leading to such despair might be the war on men in general. We are told we must be less manly because of the toxicity of the manhood. We are told to embrace a “feminine side” and to accept that gender roles no longer apply because there are no longer just two genders, but a myriad of them and no-one may use the male and female descriptors . Doing so is a form of violence, they claim.
    Parents start buying into the idea that they must be gender neutral when raising children. Children need to explore all genders and the public school system and the National Institutes of health have become enablers in this. The old saying “boys will be boys” is taboo. Why should we not be surprised when men will not be men?

  2. Our society has been waging war on men for a long time. Before the mid-60s a man with a high school diploma could support his wife at home with children on his salary. Now it takes two salaries. No-fault divorce and divorce laws tend to favor the females. Heck, 20-30 years ago I recall school librarians were in a tizzy because most of the main characters in children’s books were male. Now girls read earlier than boys, and generally better, and girls will read a book if the hero is male, but boys tend to not read books with heroines. So getting more books with heroines didn’t do that much to help girls read more, but did help depress the boys interest in reading. There are many strands to the degradation of the man in our society. Look at, or read about, how television, shows and commercials, portray the man as a helpless, and out problem-solved by his grade school daughter.

    The Church hasn’t helped. Before Vatican II many Milwaukee parishes had all male choirs, because the women weren’t allowed to sing at Mass. Once Vatican II came along, the choir members quit. The sentiment was, “Before I sang because the women couldn’t. Now they can sing. Let them.” Girls are allowed to be altar servers, and I have been to parishes which have old women serving at altar, and boys are hard to find in that service. This is a big problem. I’ve heard of a diocese which only allows men to lector, on Sundays. When we say to men: we need you to do this, they respond. If they have the out of “let the ladies have their turn”, then they won’t do it.

  3. Fr. Longenecker,
    Thank you for writing this! I have a 31 year old son, so we’ve experienced this. Men and boys have been suffering in silence for too long.
    We have to keep this issue in the spotlight.

  4. I believe we are a nation in which many are without a faith, but I question if that alone is the reason for the increase in suicides. As you stated, “The rate of suicide deaths in the USA is skyrocketing, while in Germany, the UK, Sweden, and France, they are either holding steady or declining.” I believe the rate of religious affiliation and practice has been declining in those countries for some time. I would like to suggest that the lack of real family bonds and traditions to be an even stronger cause of our general despair. It’s as if we are a society without anchor.

  5. Also, we are the most overworked labor force in the world, although Japan has it pretty bad in this arena also. We spend 80 percent of our time working and very little time spent raising and being the leader of our households. I was stationed in Germany for three years. The Germans have holidays for their holidays. Europeans in general get many many days off throughout the year. I loved it in Germany because on my base a lot of the stuff going on behind the scenes was run by the Germans. So when they had the day off the post shut down, meaning we also had the day off for the most part. If you want to repair the family unit you can start by not requiring the adults of the family to have to work so much and give them ample time off throughout the year to raise their families, be with their families, and mentor their families. There are so many things we can point our fingers to that that have caused the social collapse of America, but I think the grotesque amount of time we spend at work and not with our families is one of the leading causes of the problem.

  6. God gave us free will and Jesus told us to rid ourselves of what offends us.
    Men may choose to leave a world that has no justice or no honour. To be able to exit like Socrates after a party with close friends and without fuss or liability for others seems admirable.!

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