By Elizabeth Higbie, LCSW
In the wake of the latest rash of celebrity suicides, people the world over are searching for answers. The question on everyone’s lips is, “Why?” Why would someone with enormous success, far more money than most could dream of, and the respect of millions of people worldwide choose to end their life?
It is not wrong to look to mental health, particularly depression, for an explanation. Depression is, after all, the most common psychiatric diagnosis found in individuals experiencing suicidal ideation. However, this is a bit shortsighted. If it were enough, would we be grappling with this unfortunate epidemic? Although we still have a need for improvement, never before in history has there been so much mental health awareness, literacy, and access to treatment. Yet somehow, suicide rates have never been higher. I believe we need to be asking a bigger question: What is it about modern life that leads so many of us to such a deep level of despair?
Hopelessness is one of the defining features of a depressive disorder, and is among the biggest risk factors for suicide. The U.S. is facing a hopelessness epidemic like never before, ironically in a time when we have never had more access to things that are designed to make our lives easier, more fun, and supposedly more fulfilling. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that 16.2 million adults experienced at least one major depressive episode in 2016. And depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. among people ages 15-44. In my clinical work, I see time and again, a lack of meaning drives people to despair. If hopelessness is the disease, finding meaning and purpose might be the cure.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor, gives us valuable insights. Prior to World War II, Frankl had already formulated his psychotherapeutic approach that would become what he titled “logotherapy,” a therapy based in the idea that suffering with a purpose can be not only tolerable, but fruitful. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how striving to recall and record the findings of his previous research that he had lost, and the goal of someday publishing and disseminating them, helped him persevere through the most painful moments of his imprisonment during the war. Frankl lost all of his immediate family in the war except for his sister. He describes his observations of others in the camp who had lost hope, and who seemed to succumb to infection and the effects of malnutrition more readily than those who had a clear and compelling motivation for survival. What he found, and ultimately shared with the world, was that identifying meaning in one’s suffering can be a protective factor against despair and hopelessness, even under the direst of circumstances.
In our postmodern world, we are confronted with the idea that there is no objective truth. Without the pursuit of truth, what enduring purpose can there be in life? I believe our current culture would say it is to pursue and find happiness, but there’s a problem with this philosophy. Happiness, satisfaction, and success are intangible, fleeting and superficial. Without faith in something greater than our own emotions, success, and preferences, we are left anchorless. When happiness passes, what are we to do? When we have worshipped and pursued self-fulfillment to its natural end, but have not found peace, what then?
I suspect this is what we are seeing happening among so many incredibly successful and talented individuals. When someone has achieved levels of success beyond their wildest dreams, yet they remain empty and unsatisfied, what more do they have left to live for? What hope is there? Despair may be even more profound in these cases of extreme success, as they might feel that if anyone couldachieve fulfillment, they should be the ones.
I believe the Catholic faith is a powerful protector against hopelessness. Catholics believe life in our earthly bodies is a means, not an end. This philosophy is one the secular culture often sees as restrictive. ‘Christians have no fun!’ the culture says. In reality, we as Christians find this philosophy to be freeing. We are freed from the pressure to achieve success and fulfillment in this life, because we know it is not our destiny. Our Catholic faith helps us to find meaning in the joyous, mundane, and even extremely painful experiences of this life. When we experience failure, we recall that we were created for heaven, not success by earthly standards. When we face financial hardships, we remember God’s promise to the poor. And when we face unimaginable physical or emotional pain, we recall Christ’s suffering for us, and the hope of the resurrection. We trust that God’s plan for our lives and redemption is perfect, and while that does not mean the road will be easy, the meaning we find along the way can keep us full of hope.
If we are looking for a cure to the epidemic of hopelessness, we can find it in the purpose and meaning we learn in the Catholic faith.
Elizabeth Higbie is a licensed clinical social worker with St. Raphael Counseling of Catholic Charities of Denver.