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Capitalism Caused the Suicide Epidemic. We Must Overthrow It

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. Many NGOs, politicians, and corporations will release statements on the need to raise awareness around individual mental health. But they only pay lip service to a deeply systemic issue that is rooted in the injustices and exploitation of capitalism.

Sybil Davis

September 10, 2020
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“Instead of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.” — Mark Fisher (Capitalist Realism, 2009)

Every year on September 10, people around the world observe World Suicide Prevention Day. Organizations such as the World Health Organization and others use the day to build awareness about the causes, signs, and ways to prevent suicide. But these efforts at best attempt to put a bandaid on a deeply complicated issue and at worst obfuscate the material conditions and systemtic factors that contribute to rising rates of suicide around the world. . When confronting the underlying causes of the horrifically high rates of suicide, we have to understand that capitalism is the root cause of many deaths by suicide, as well as the lack of resources to help people who are struggling. As such, we need to fight to prevent suicide with an anti-capitalist perspective.

Contrary to messaging from many non-profits and government organizations, suicide prevention should not be — cannot be — an individualized task. It is not, as many suggest, the job solely of individuals to check in on their loved ones and ensure that they have the help they need. By that same token, it cannot be the sole responsibility of the person who is struggling to find help for themselves. Rather, we must understand that we have a collective societal responsibility to look after those who are confronting a mental health crisis. Given this, any conversation about suicide prevention must center the need to construct a society that is designed to aid people rather than exploit them. Because at every turn, the capitalist state has failed us. It has left us to die, to mourn our loved ones, so long as we continue to make our bosses money.

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis are increasing suicide rates to an alarming degree. A study published in August reported that 25.5 percent of people aged 18 to 24 said that they had seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days. Like other public health crises, suicide disproportionately impacts marginalized communities. 41 percent of trans* adults report having attempted suicide while the suicide rate for Native youth is 2.5 times higher than the national average.  

As the economic crisis worsens and more people lose their jobs and homes, millions more will die as the rates of suicide continue to rise. Worsening material conditions will lead to increased suicide rates among vulnerable, exploited, and oppressed people in particular. Studies show a strong association between poverty and youth suicide rates, and about 30 percent of those who die by suicide are unemployed. This shows that suicide is not the inevitable result of a personal psychological problem but, rather, a reaction to despair caused by material conditions. It is not merely a personal decision but a symptom of a larger societal problem.

That capitalists and their governments are responsible for these deaths must never be forgotten. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the government has not forgiven rent, has not cancelled student loans, has not provided free healthcare, has not extended livable unemployment, and has done nothing to protect the millions of jobs that were lost. 

It is true, of course, that suicide has a variety of causes including both material conditions and underlying mental health struggles, and it is overly simplistic to lay the entiriety of the blame for suicides at the feet of capitalism. However, capitalism has created oppressive and alienating conditions while at the same time systematically depriving people of necessary resources. This is especially acute in the United States where healthcare is privatized and mental health care is harder to obtain than it is elsewhere. 

Given this, any discussion of mental health and suicide prevention must acknowledge that we will never be able to truly care for people and prevent suicide under capitalism. As long as people are exploited, alientated from their labor, oppressed, and deprived of resources by the state, there will be a suicide epidemic. 

This is not to claim that, on the day after the revolution, all mental health struggles will disappear. Far from it. But the way that our society currently addresses these issues is, to paraphrase the Mark Fisher, inherently dysfunctional. For capitalists, millions of suicide deaths per year is a small price to pay to maintain their power and profits.

Every year around September 10, a plethora of companies, business leaders, and officials release statements or products to support suicide prevention. Vice President Mike Pence’s wife Karen Pence, a teacher at a school that explicitly excludes LGBTQ+ students and staff tweeted out her support for suicide prevention on September 1, saying that it is an “important time to recognize suicide as a public health issue.” In 2017, even Donald Trump himself issued a statement recognizing World Suicide Prevention Day which said that, “As a Nation, we must strive to prevent heartbreaking loss of life caused by suicides.” Last year, Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services likewise tweeted his support.

This shows the limits of a suicide “prevention” that isn’t explicitly anti-capitalist. Of course, almost no one would say that they oppose suicide prevention efforts. But when it comes time to support even the most moderate policies to actually prevent suicide, they merely pay lip service to the issue, hiding beyind empty slogans and instead put profits over human lives.

Famed labor organizer Mother Jones famously said that we must “pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.” Too many people have already mourned losses and too many more will be mourning in the coming crisis. To honor their legacy, to demand justice for the lives lost, we must fight with every ounce of our resolve against the system of capitalism. Capitalism has damned us to a system of crippling debt, unwavering exploitation, and failing social services. We owe it to ourselves, to all those who are struggling, and to all of those who have died to be relentless in our fight. The suicide epidemic is preventable only by creating a society where people aren’t alienated from their labor, have much better material conditions, and free access to health care — including mental health care. This is the world that we fight for. This year on World Suicide Prevention Day, let us re-affirm our commitment to fighting for a better world against the capitalists and their governments.

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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