Here’s a sad question for the day: How many opioid overdoses could be classified as suicides?
There’s no way to know, is there? If people are trying to bury their pain, depression and anxiety in pills or needles, how would public officials know — without a suicide note — that an overdose was intentional? What if victims are on a path suggesting that they simply don’t care whether they live or die?
Suicides involving guns are much more definitive.
This brings us to some of the issues discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (CLICK HERE to to tune that in), which focused on a totally religion-free Associated Press story that ran with this headline: “US suicides hit an all-time high last year.”
As you would expect, this report featured lots of tragic numbers and then tried to answer the “why” question in the classic journalism mantra “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.” In this case, the “why” and the “how” factors were one and the same.
GetReligion readers will not be surprised that I suggested there were cultural, moral and religious questions looming over this topic. Since I live in Southern Appalachia, I offered some research tips for how religion-beat journalists — if editors were to give them a chance — could find ways to broaden this topic to include trends (such as opioid overdoses) linked to the suicide numbers. Hold that thought.
First, here is the AP overture:
NEW YORK (AP) — About 49,500 people took their own lives last year in the U.S., the highest number ever, according to new government data posted Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which posted the numbers, has not yet calculated a suicide rate for the year, but available data suggests suicides are more common in the U.S. than at any time since the dawn of World War II.
“There’s something wrong. The number should not be going up,” said Christina Wilbur, a 45-year-old Florida woman whose son shot himself to death last year.
What is driving this trend? From my point of view (I shared that a family member wrote a book on suicide prevention), these suicide numbers can be linked to several major trends in American life — starting with soaring statistics about loneliness, anxiety, depression, broken families, under-employment and a growing sense of hopelessness.
When covering this kind of complex topic, journalists are going to try to answer the “why” question. The direction they head seeking an answer can be revealing. The AP report nods in the direction of complexity — then focuses the entire story on one cause and one cause only. Read this carefully (and I added some bold type to highlight some journalism techniques):
Experts caution that suicide is complicated, and that recent increases might be driven by a range of factors, including higher rates of depression and limited availability of mental health services.
But a main driver is the growing availability of guns, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Suicide attempts involving guns end in death far more often than those with other means, and gun sales have boomed — placing firearms in more and more homes.
“A” main driver? Certainly. But why turn that into the report’s only “why” topic?
Obviously, the 49,500 suicide number is stunning.
But so was the latest report on overdose deaths, with nearly 110,000 Americans dead in 2022.
As I mentioned earlier, I am showing a strong regional bias when I link these topics. In the podcast, I suggested that reporters find a statistical breakdown — by county — for suicides and then look up the same statistic for opioid deaths. I predicted that some zip codes would overlap.
That idea popped into my head while on the air (this was recorded live). As it turns out, the county numbers are not easy to find, while most of the reports focus on specific states.
The suicide numbers in the “mountain West” are stunning. It would be interesting to know the “why” and the “how” factors. But when you look for overlap in these two trends, it’s easy to spot Appalachia.
What would journalists hear if they looked at the “overlap” states and then called pastors in working-class congregations in the worst danger zones? Don’t call the Harvard Divinity School! Call pastors who have been doing funerals for overdose victims and others who have, by one means or another, ended their own lives. Listen to these pastors and their people. Are there any religious, moral and cultural issues here?
That brings me to the viral hillbilly music YouTube that has been making headlines in the past two weeks — as in “Rich Men North Of Richmond” by the totally unknown Oliver Anthony.
A suicide hook? Yes, that’s in the lyrics and the songwriter has talked about his yearnings to end his own life.
While the press coverage has focused on a bitter line about welfare abusers — a tragic topic that, in the context of Appalachia, is primarily linked to generations of white poverty — this song has all kinds of hooks linked to the growing sense of despair in America’s fly-over country.
Oliver Anthony makes roots music — and it seems to come from a place of real pain. In an online introduction, he said he lives alone in the country with his dogs, and started making music a short time ago when he got fed up with himself for hiding from his problems by getting drunk and getting high. …
Anthony says he was for a long time an angry agnostic, but a month or so ago, crushed by depression, he fell on his knees and asked for God’s help. Now he is on the cusp of superstardom. At his farmer’s market show this past Sunday, he opened by pulling out a Bible and reading from Psalm 37. Nobody saw that coming. But then, nobody saw Oliver Anthony coming either — not even Oliver Anthony.
Anthony’s breakout hit, “Rich Men North Of Richmond,” is a standard protest song against the indifference of Washington politicians to the struggles of the working man.
Part of Anthony’s press problem is that his song has been praised by icky conservative commentators in cyberspace. That’s interesting, since in previous decade this howl of Appalachian populism — poverty, hunger, under-employment, rich overlords — would have stirred the souls of old-guard progressives in the Democratic Party. That was then. This is now.
This man’s music has lots of anger at people in both major political parties. You think pedophile Jeffrey Epstein’s “black book” of island visitors — yes, there’s a shot in that direction in “Rich Men North Of Richmond” — only contained big shots in one political flock?
But I’ll end this post with some lyrics from this song (which if you haven’t heard already, the odds are good that you will very soon). Here’s how it starts:
I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away …
Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground
‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down
Lord, it’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is
Livin’ in the new world
With an old soul
That isn’t a song for a church social, but lots of people in blue-collar churches will be talking about it during coffee hour and dinner-on-the-grounds gatherings.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited photo illustration from the Lippincott Nursing Center website.