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Suicide, mutual cooperation and the future of humanity

The Other Side

I was 13 when Jim Hackett died by suicide.

Jim and his wife worked for the Forest Service substation in Norwood, where I grew up. Like other parts of Southwest Colorado, my community was plagued by addiction, seasonal job loss and intergenerational poverty. In contrast, Jim and his family were living the type of life that provoked envy in kids like me.

The Hacketts wore uniforms to work, drove decent vehicles, lived in a nice home and had two beautiful daughters. As a kid who grew up in a family that lived paycheck to paycheck, a part of me resented their stability. In my adolescent mind, economic well-being equated with happiness, and it simply didn’t seem fair that others had it, while my family did not.

When I learned of Jim’s death, I remember feeling angry. How could a man, who ostensibly had so much, abandon his wife and kids forever? Twenty-five years later, I view Jim’s death quite differently. In my mind, his passing marks the beginning of one of the darkest phases in our nation’s history.

Jim Hackett died in 1998. Since then, suicide rates in the United States have jumped by 30%. During this span, the Rocky Mountain West - ranging from Alaska to New Mexico - has led the nation in self-inflicted deaths with rates ranging from 21 per 100,000 inhabitants in Colorado to 30.2 in Wyoming. Across 250 years, Americans have never ended their own lives as frequently as they have over the last 20 years. In the past, our enemies roamed battlefields. Today, they lurk within.

Risk factors for suicide are well-documented. Socially isolated males living in rural areas with access to firearms are most vulnerable. Substance abuse, middle-age and financial struggles also correlate with suicide. But the usual suspects don’t fully account for our nation’s historically high rates of suicide.

In his groundbreaking book, “Le Suicide,” Émile Durkheim analyzed the causes of suicide in 19th century Europe. Born in 1858, Durkheim lived through a period of social, cultural and political upheaval. During his lifetime, millions of Europeans left the countryside for the city, migrating toward industrial jobs, the promise of social mobility and a means of breaking with feudal caste systems.

Amid this dramatic transition, traditional authorities like the village parish, gave way to cultures driven by economic markets and individualism. The shift from a communal society, where survival depended on mutual aid, to an individual society where personal accolades won the day, incentivized incredible advances in education, medicine and technology, but it came at the cost of our commitment to the common good. And according to Durkheim, and scores of subsequent social scientists, as humans moved away from the collective, more and more people lost sight of their purpose in life.

Like Durkheim, I sense that the principal cause of rising suicides in the U.S. is tightly linked with our nation’s shifting culture. When Jim Hackett took his life in 1998, dial-up internet had only recently reached Norwood, but the world was already shrinking as coding, websites and day trading reduced time and space to a question of connectivity speed. As we’ve merged technology with our personal lives, we’ve withdrawn from human interaction, and the isolation is taking a toll on our physical and mental well-being.

Over thousands of years, we’ve evolved to depend on cooperation. However, in a matter of decades, we’ve turned away from one another in a quest for personal fame, recognition and wealth. To be certain, technology has allowed us to soar to new heights. However, our survival as a species may well hinge on our willingness to turn back toward one another.

Ben Waddell is an associate professor of sociology at Fort Lewis College and serves on the board of Compañeros, a Durango-based immigration rights nonprofit.