Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Suicide & Melancholia

Two interesting stories in this morning's Chronicle of Higher Education, both dealing with suicide and depression, which is a focus of the first few weeks in several of my classes (Durkheim, the Sociological Perspective, Delinquency, Criminology).

First, a new study showing thoughts of suicide are quite common among college students today.

A study of 26,000 students at 70 colleges and universities suggests that suicidal thoughts are not rare among that population, with more than half of the responders reporting they have thought about suicide and 15 percent reporting they have seriously considered ending their lives. More than 5 percent reported attempting suicide sometime in their lives.

David J. Drum, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin, and his co-authors found that 6 percent of undergraduates reported contemplating suicide in the 12 months before the survey was taken, and 4 percent of graduate students reported contemplating it during the same period. More than half the students who experienced a recent suicidal crisis did not seek help or tell anyone about their suicidal thoughts.
At first blush, this finding is surprising. While rates of suicide among teenagers and young adults remains relatively low in comparison to the rest of the population, the 15% of students who contemplated "seriously ending their lives" seems rather high.

The first reaction to such news is to wonder, "why are so many students depressed?" We tend to immediately judge suicidal ideation in terms of mental illness which needs treatment of perhaps a pharmacological kind.

But maybe, as Prof. Eric Wilson writes in his latest book, "In Praise of Melancholy," depression isn't at fault. Maybe we, as a society, and our relentless, borderline pathological desire to constantly be happy, end up over-stigmatizing those who feel melancholy and marginalize them to the extent that ending their lives seems the only way to cope.

I for one am afraid that American culture's overemphasis on happiness at the expense of sadness might be dangerous, a wanton forgetting of an essential part of a full life. I further am concerned that to desire only happiness in a world undoubtedly tragic is to become inauthentic, to settle for unrealistic abstractions that ignore concrete situations. I am finally fearful of our society's efforts to expunge melancholia. Without the agitations of the soul, would all of our magnificently yearning towers topple? Would our heart-torn symphonies cease?

My fears grow out of my suspicion that the predominant form of American happiness breeds blandness. This kind of happiness appears to disregard the value of sadness. This brand of supposed joy, moreover, seems to foster an ignorance of life's enduring and vital polarity between agony and ecstasy, dejection and ebullience. Trying to forget sadness and its integral place in the great rhythm of the cosmos, this sort of happiness insinuates that the blues are an aberrant state that should be cursed as weakness of will or removed with the help of a little pink pill.

He goes on to note that some, obviously severely depressed persons, do need help to keep them from harming themselves or others. But those persons are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the melancholia Wilson is writing about. He differentiates between depression and melancholy thusly:

Both are more or less chronic sadness that leads to continuing unease with how things are — persistent feelings that the world is not quite right, that it is a place of suffering, stupidity, and evil. Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.

Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treats melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment[...] My sense is that most of us have been duped by the American craze for happiness. We might think that we're leading a truly honest existence, when we're really just behaving as predictably and artificially as robots, falling easily into well-worn "happy" behaviors, into the conventions of contentment.

Why? The answer is simple: fear. Most hide behind a smile because they are afraid of facing the world's complexity, its vagueness, its terrible beauties. If we stay safely ensconced behind our painted grins, then we won't have to encounter the insecurities attendant upon dwelling in possibility, those anxious moments when one doesn't know this from that, when one could suddenly become almost anything at all[...] To foster a society of total happiness is to concoct a culture of fear.
A fear of feeling different. Perhaps, if Wilson is correct and we were to embrace melancholy and "feeling blue" as normal, we might decrease the chance of a suicidal outcome amongst those whose only "deviance" is feeling different.

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