The CDC released a sobering report about suicide in the US. A lot of people are dying by suicide – 45,000 just in the year 2016. Suicide rates have gone up since 1999 in in virtually every state by as much as 30%.
Relationship Problems Linked with Over 40% of Deaths by Suicide
The report highlights a finding that is rarely discussed in the context of suicide. The CDC estimates that 42% of all suicides are related to relationship problems. In other words, in 2016, approximately 18,900 people died by suicide for reasons that included relationship problems.
(Source: CDC Vital Signs Report, June 2018)
Relationships and Life – and Death
This chilling finding is perhaps the most dramatic illustration to date of the powerful effect that relationships have on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It is easy to imagine the evolutionary reason that humans pay so much attention to relationships: Before we ruled and tortured the planet and its inhabitants, when we were weak and scared, we drew our strength from collaborating with others and by trusting that they will come to our aid when we needed help – which, in turn, relied on their knowledge that we will come to their aid when they need help. This reasoning could be applied to our struggles against the environment (building strong shelter), against other species (defending against predators, hunting difficult-to-catch prey), and against ourselves (fighting other groups of humans). Having no collaborators, no group to be a part of, could quickly become fatal. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why even the threat of being alone would be enough to create such stress as to damage our minds and bodies.
In a seminal 1988 Science article titled “Social Relationships and Health“, the authors House et al. conclude that “studies… consistently show increased risk of death among persons with a low quantity, and sometimes low quality, of social relationships” and that “social isolation is a major risk factor for mortality from widely varying causes”. To put things in perspective, they authors remark that “social relationships, or the relative lack thereof, constitute a major risk factor for health—rivaling the effect of well established health risk factors such as cigarette smoking, blood pressure, blood lipids, obesity and physical activity”. They point to the US Surgeon General’s 1964 Report on Smoking and Health, which marked the inflection point for the acceleration of anti-tobacco laws and regulations, with the implication that similar attention should be provided to ensuring that people have adequate social relationships to ensure their health. Britain seems to have taken this idea seriously, when in 2018 they announced a new government position: The Minister of Loneliness (I wish they named it after the intended result, rather than after the problem–you don’t often hear about the Minister of Crushing Military Defeats or the Minister of Government Bankruptcy–the Minister of Community or the Minister of Human Connection sounds better to me; but I digress and, more importantly, good for Britain for taking this seriously and showing other countries that this is an issue that deserves government attention).
Social relationships are a double-edged sword: When they’re good, they make everything better, but when they’re bad or absent, they make everything more difficult, even dangerous. In his masterpiece The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes of love:
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth.
My read of the prophet’s words on love (read the whole thing, it’s truly gorgeous) is that, ultimately, Khalil’s prophet urges his listeners to pursue love with full knowledge of the pain and misery it can bring, because to love is to exist, and because to be guided by love is to be moved by the right force.
The CDC report, however, adds a sombre cautionary note to Kahlil’s ecstatic teachings. When love hurts, it can kill you.
With a Little Help From My Friends
Is the solution, then, to rebuke the prophet, to avoid love, and to stay safely and comfortably detached? The results of thousands of studies on social relationships and social support suggest that this, too, is not a winning strategy, leading to exacerbation of mental health problems, physical ailments and early death.
Not having close relationships can kill you. Having a close relationship that goes sour can kill you, too. What’s a human to do?
Spread the love. Diversify. Have multiple strong, close, loving, supportive relationships. Certainly more than zero. Preferably more than one. Few enough that each relationship can be strong and real. When one relationship is a source of pain, others can be a source of comfort and healing. There’s a reason the Lennon and McCartney wrote they’ll get by with a little help from their friends. Friends, not friend.
Relationships: Front and Center
It would be wise for us to give relationships at least the same amount of thought and time that we give to exercise. If you are a leader of a community (at work, in your neighborhood, or anywhere else), invest time in helping people strengthen their relationships with each other. But start by taking care of yourself: intentionally preserve and deepen relationships with close friends and family. Have more than one person you are close to, people who rely on you and on whom you can comfortably rely. If you find yourself on the path to feeling utterly alone and despaired, if you feel like the only way out is death, turn to a person you trust – they will be so happy that you did, and ultimately you will, too. And if there isn’t someone like that in your life, turn to people who care about you even before meeting you, such as the amazing folks at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, who will talk with you 24/7 by phone (1-800-273-8255) or online.