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Suicide Attempts Surge Among Teenage Girls

The past two years saw the forces of fatalism and anomie collide.

High school students. (NASA via Wikimedia Commons)

The number of adolescent girls visiting emergency rooms for suicide attempts rose 51 percent between 2019 and 2021, according to a New York Times report.

The lockdown regime and other pandemic-era restrictions played an obvious role in the uptick. People have been deprived of normal human interaction for two years. They were holed up in their homes for months. Large gatherings were banned and schools went remote. People still cover their faces in public. These restrictions and the antisocial tendencies they encouraged were bound to affect adolescent females, already prone to self-image disorders and other neuroses. No group of people can less afford to spend their days in front of a computer screen than 14-year-old girls.

To contextualize the spike, consider the theory of suicide proposed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who argued that suicides generally take one of four forms. “Egoistic suicides” are committed in response to real or imagined alienation from social institutions—think of bachelors, widows, and nihilists. “Altruistic suicides,” found in many primitive cultures, are committed in response to social pressure or convention—for example, the Roman historian Quintus Curtius describes how ancient sages would “have themselves burned alive as soon as age or sickness begins to trouble them,” for “death, passively awaited, is a dishonor to life.” Third are “fatalistic suicides,” committed by people in repressive settings and regimes, like slaves in bondage or criminals in prison. Last are “anomic suicides”—the inverse of fatalistic suicides, anomic suicides are committed by those who lack internal or external restraints on their conduct. Since men thirst for structure, Durkheim argues those deprived of it are subject to the “constantly renewed torture” of “[i]nextingusihable thirst” that leads them to take their own lives.

The past two years saw the forces of fatalism and anomie collide. Long before the pandemic arrived, our culture encouraged young people to reject unchosen obligations and left them unmoored from the institutions and moral systems that add meaning and purpose to life. At the same time, the lockdown regime—which barred people from churches, volunteer organizations, and social functions—used draconian means to reinforce the worst tendencies of our libertine culture.

The mere fact of suffering under the lockdown regime is insufficient to explain the spike in teen suicide attempts. As Durkheim observed, “some men resist horrible misfortune while others kill themselves after slight troubles.” There are kids in the third world who will have experienced greater pain and misery in one day than any American child will face in a lifetime who will not resort to suicide. Ironically, affluence often ensnares the young in listlessness and suicidal despair. “It is too great comfort which turns a man against himself,” Durkheim said. “Life is most readily renounced at the time and among the classes where it is least harsh.”




about the author

John Hirschauer is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He was previously a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review and a staff writer at RealClear.

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