CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Youth Suicide and Secularisation

Sep 18, 1998

Australia has one of the highest youth suicide rates among the world’s developed nations, with 27.3 out of 100,000 Australian males aged 15 to 24 expected to kill themselves. In 1996, 2367 Australians killed themselves, and perhaps a quarter of million attempted suicide. Suicide is second only to car accidents as a leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year old Australians. In Victoria the youth suicide rate has increased by 400 per cent during the past decade. In 1994 , 88 young Victorians killed themselves.

While there are many reasons for youth suicide, one main factor is the secularisation of society with a corresponding loss of purpose and meaning. It is perhaps ironic that while affluent Western culture has made it possible for our children – indeed, all of us – to live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than at any other time, it has also produced a generation of young people who feel disaffected and alienated from society, from purpose, from their own selves. With our material abundance has come a stagnation of soul and spirit. The many benefits of our materialistic culture are being offset by the many negative consequences of Western consumerism.

Such talk of course may not go down well with politicians looking for tangible answers to the problems of youth suicide. Yet we cannot overlook such concerns. John Smith, who has spent most of his adult life working with street kids puts it this way: “Most sociologists in our society today are radically secular, so therefore anything that even begins to speak of the spiritual nature of the human being is ipso facto non-existent. Therefore one must find a cause which is social, socio-economic, political, structural and all the rest. On the issue of youth suicide, for example, the politicians say that if the Government doesn’t fix up unemployment we are going to see much more suicide.

“If you don’t accept that suicide is a mark of a loss of any sense and meaning of purpose and soul, which is all a bit ephemeral for academics that have to be able to show figures for causal relationships, then you have to invent something and you target unemployment, and if that doesn’t work you target something else, and if that doesn’t work you keep playing the game.”

Smith, of Care and Communication Concern, has found from his long-term work with youth offenders that broken families and the loss of moral/religious values are the key factors in the lives of those he works with.

Social scientist Richard Eckersley has studied the attitudes of children and teenagers for over a decade. He believes that behind the growing trends of youth homelessness, youth suicide, drug abuse and other problems lies a “failure to provide a sense of meaning, belonging and purpose in our lives, and a framework of values.” He notes that many young people “have lost a strong belief in anything that transcends the material world and that might sustain them in the face of its dangers and disappointments”. Economic rationalism, material abundance, and rugged individualism, in other words, are not enough to sustain and protect our hurried and harassed young people.

Sydney psychiatrist Dr. Jean Lennane has noted that a decline in formal religious observance, “and the support and comfort it previously offered,” is a key factor in the rise in youth suicide rates. This decline, along with a decline in ideals of public service and helping others, as well as a flowering of the “greed is good” mentality have all made an impact. Dr Lennane also notes that family breakdown and the push for legal euthanasia are important contributing factors.

If young people are constantly bombarded with the idea that life has no meaning or purpose, that human beings simply evolved out of some primordial ooze, and are drifting into a meaningless future, then the question that needs to be asked is, why not suicide? It seems like a good option if life really is so purposeless and bleak.

Until we take seriously the problem of secularisation, it is likely that the problem of youth suicide will only get worse.

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