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Deaths of Despair and Emile Durkheim‘s Ideas to Prevent Them

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Emile Durkheim explains four types of suicide; egoistic, altruistic, fatalistic, and anomic suicides. He describes suicide as “madness” and defines each type of suicide based on its distinctive characteristics. Anomic suicide is made up of both egoism and anomie which causes a person to lack moral regulation and to become socially isolated. A person who can’t regulate their life morally can lose track of things that normally bring them satisfaction or happiness for example, one’s spirituality or intimate relations. Social isolation can occur when a person experiences life changes that they are unable to adjust to, thus leading them to lack morality.

Social isolation can result in disconnecting from social groups such as work, school and church. All of which can contribute to a person’s moral standards that normally bring positivity into their life but have lost all purpose during a crisis related to new changes. The concept of anomic suicide is related to the recent increase in deaths of despair among middle aged whites. Deaths of despair are suicides and drug related deaths triggered by feelings of hopelessness and displacement (Shanahan et al. 2019). The definition of despair describes misery which isn’t an uncommon feeling for someone to experience when they’re going through life changes that causes them to lose sight of life’s purpose. What’s important is that people understand how to adjust to the changes in their life in order to prevent deaths of despair and Durkheim does a great job at demonstrating how someone can do that by discussing various mental states one will go through before and after experiencing anomie and egoism.

Durkheim discusses social problems related to anomic suicide and he provides ways to avert suicidal tendencies (Durkheim, [1897] 2006). It is argued that Durkheim’s idea on anomic suicide correlates with deaths of despair, his ideas can be used to enlighten society on ways to regulate morality to prevent deaths of despair from increasing any further for the middle-aged white Americans. In order to better understand the motives behind deaths of despair, one must study anomic suicide and its entirety to gain an insight on the social and moral aspects that coincide with deaths of despair. First, the impact social factors have on one’s life. Secondly, the importance behind morally regulating a person’s wants to align them with their means. Lastly, the limitations and lines that need to be drawn for one’s desires (Durkheim, [1897] 2006).

Social factors significantly influence human life and require people to adapt to new changes that are constantly being made. Whether the changes taking place in someone’s life are good or bad, they can still experience an absolute loss of morality. The only way to preserve morality is to adjust to all life changes while maintaining a good understanding on one’s personal interests and desires that brings them joy. Someone can jump from poverty level to the top 9.9% to losing their job or adjusting to the aftermath of a natural disaster. All of which are dramatic changes that require a person to adjust their life. When someone fails to adjust with societal change, they can fall victim to anomie, leading to social disconnection (Durkheim, [1897] 2006). Based on one’s life experiences, they may handle change better than others and can possibly create a foundation that allows them to stay morally grounded regardless of how significant the changes in their life may be.

Suicide is a topic that isn’t discussed often within society because it’s an anomalous act that is viewed as morally wrong and is a sensitive topic to much of society. Suicide is something that needs to be addressed more often without being compared to mental health related issues. Durkheim researches suicide related to social factors rather than mental health factors which can contradict the term “suicidal” as it is frequently categorized under mental health. However, improve social structures and implementing moral standards into one’s life may help someone overcome anomic suicidal tendencies without seeking help from mental health professionals.

Each person experiences different aspects of life such as the school they attend, the parenting style they were raised with, the food they eat, personal interests and many other aspects of a person’s life that separates them from everyone else. These are the parts of our life that truly impact everything we do from how we talk to what we choose to eat every morning. Each person is going to experience difficulties when it comes to investing one’s passions into a quest for change, a change one has never experienced before. In order to see the changes that need to be made, we must live within a society that follows a moral order, this will require sacrifices from everyone within the society.

Societies currently identifies with behavioral despair indicates carelessness, Shanahan states “behavioral despair consists of risky, reckless, and unhealthy acts that are self-destructive and reflect limited consideration of the future” (Shanahan et al, 2019:856). These are the sacrifices that will strip what belonged to the old society and replace it with an entirely new social structure. Throughout this process many will experience a variety of emotions that can potentially become threatening to one’s ability to adjust with the social changes. For it’s important that people to understand the threatening emotions that can occur and to avoid allowing them to become a distraction.

Emotions play a big role in responding to life changes, a person can completely change the way they deal with life changes if they’re able to regulate their emotions to appropriately fit societal changes. This can lead someone to make more rational decisions if they are able to remain calm and actively happy which are two emotions Durkheim states are indicators of good healt. Learning how to control one’s emotions and how to apply new emotions can give someone an opportunity to overcome negative emotional response. The emotions that someone uses to responds to changes can determine how well they can handle changes in the future. Emotions also impact one’s wants and needs, which can in turn change the route in life one chooses to live and the experiences they will go through.

A person’s life experiences can alter their expectations in life and explain the increase in deaths of despair for middle aged whites. Currently middle-age white Americans continue to experience “increasing despair and economic deterioration in White America” (Masters, et al. 2017). With an increase in drug overdoses, liver failure, and suicides, researchers have been attempting to identify what is leading this specific group to resort to deaths of despair. Researchers discuss potential life stressors like healthcare, gun laws, worsening mistrust, income inequality, educational resources, race, and age. All of which are stressors that can apply to more than just middle-aged white Americans. In fact, considering whites are the racial majority in the United States, there are likely racial minorities who are experiencing the same life stressors and possibly even more (Murphy et al. 2018).

A common misconception regarding anomic suicide is it’s associated with financial distress. However, Durkheim began tracking statistics on suicides as early as 1864 up to 1890 which indicated there was an increase in suicides regardless of economic hardship or prosperity. He goes on to identify that no matter where someone is in life or how well the economy is doing, people already know what they desire out of life. Each person’s life experiences can impact their desires, middle aged white Americans might expect more out of life than a middle-aged minority but could realistically have the same opportunities and resources as a middle-aged minority. This would be an example of someone who has unrealistic desires that will end in disappointment.

Although within society racial minorities are often viewed to have less than a person who is white, those who identify as a racial minority might feel they have all they need in life. Durkheim states, “The working man is not in harmony with his social position if he is not convinced that this position is the one that he deserves”. As most of the United States begins to experience the economic stagnation regardless of race, we are likely to see an increase in deaths of despair (Shanahan et al. 2019). Emile Durkheim addressed underlying problems with anomic suicide, he uses the term “social facts” to describe socially constructed ideas. One can become easily distracted by their self-interests driven by “social facts” such as the desire to become “successful” or “wealthy”. When someone aspires to achieve “social facts” they become more likely to set themselves up for failure by creating unrealistic goals for themselves. This might lead someone to fall victim to deaths of despair and anomic suicide .

Modern day societies within the United States have been structured to provide people with much more than they need which people have likely become dependent on. With daily uses of the internet, relying on phones to communicate, and in some extreme cases controlling one’s house through their smart phone. These are all ways society has trapped people into becoming mentally addicted to the materialistic world that is benefitting from the continuous flow of cash being invested in these products. This makes it harder for society to make significant changes without facing a serious backlash in disagreement and anger which contribute to lack of morality. Regardless of the outraged society that will come of societal changes, Durkheim discusses the “dissatisfaction and repeated disappointments” one will receive as they live their life gaining temporary joy through electronics rather than interacting with people in person. Yet another road being paved to becoming socially withdrawn and isolated while failing to implement moral structure into one’s life (TenHouten, 2016). This is where society will begin to see again, an increase in deaths of despair and anomic suicides.

Durkheim states, “No living person can be happy or even live at all unless his needs are sufficiently well adjusted to his means”. In order to prevent unrealistic goals from limiting one’s accomplishments, a person must be consciously aware of the goals they set for themselves. This means being able to identify the difference between wants that “stimulate needs instead of fulfilling them”. One can do much more with their time, money, ideas, and one’s self if they focus on fulfilling their needs rather than creating more than they already have. By doing so they are given the feeling of life satisfaction and they become free from unnecessary desires that can steal their ability to feel authentic happiness.

Durkheim touches on the idea of the poor being saved from suicide due to their inability to set unrealistic expectations in life due to the fact their life is much more realistic than those who live in a middle-class neighborhood in the United States. Their reality prevents them from dreaming of anything beyond what they have in front of them and a disturbance in their reality can lead to anomie. Although there are social classes that differentiate the rich from the poor, there is nothing that “maintains inequality” aside from one’s earned income and their inherited wealth. Durkheim goes on to discuss the possibilities in life that would occur if inherited wealth was non-existent. All people would be born with equal opportunities and chances to succeed in life.

Society lacks the moral regulation needed to improve social standards. Durkheim states, “only society can precisely create a moral system greater than individual morality through the dominant force the individual follows”. The dominating power within society is not to control through fear or violence but rather respect. As society is built on a good conscience and morals, no man will feel they are being forced to follow the laws created by a society that doesn’t abide by moral standards. Instead people will be able to follow laws through moral and conscience guidance. A society that doesn’t force people to live a life focused around materialism and money will give people room to find their individuality and establish a greater form of happiness that isn’t determined by “social facts”. This means people will have the freedom to live freely by working and pursuing the dreams they wish to as long as they are living life within the moral standards created by society.

In order for someone to be able to identify what separates good moral standards from bad, they must be in tune with their natural self to gain an insight on the peace that lies within each person. It takes finding one’s inner self to be able to understand how to allow their inner compass to guide them when making decisions. This can be done by eliminating the current social structure that is ran by consumerism. After one comes to the realization that all they need in life are their very basic necessities they will become satisfied with all that they have for more happiness will come from this simple way of living. Durkheim states by “lessening the resistance that things put in our way, it persuades us that they can be constantly overcome”. Each person will experience the harsh detachment from the previous social structure that was in place but will see great benefit once they become use to the new circumstances and eventually overcome what they could have never imagined being done.

Once one has transitioned into a society that abides by the moral regulations, they must find their own way of doing things for there is no rule book indicating how human beings are to live their life. There has yet to be a social structure created that satisfies the unlimited wants that human being are capable of producing. Instead of satisfying constant wants and desires, one can improve and learn through self-discipline. Durkheim states by “lessening the resistance that things put in our way, it persuades us that they can be constantly overcome”. This can teach someone how to have discipline in other areas of their life which can help us grow in multiple different ways. Problems human beings experienced in a consumeristic society will be solved by simple living, for example; eating fast food, environmental concerns regarding new infrastructures, time parents spend away from their children, one’s inability to afford excess shopping, etc. There are many great viewpoints one can have on a newly structures society and the moral regulation that come with.

A social structure that operates on good morals and one’s conscience will create a more productive society; deaths of despair will never entirely disappear. As mentioned previously, any type of life changes can trigger someone to lose their sense of morality whether the changes are good or bad. A functioning social structure that provides more freedom and less control gives someone room to set limitations on their desires in order to stop someone from entering the never-ending cycle of wants. Human beings are programmed with a never-ending hunger that drives people to accomplish the goals they set for themselves. Although Durkheim discusses unrealistic goals and desires, many people are capable of achieving more than usual when they don’t know their limits. This can apply to underestimating how much happiness one can receive by creating a more modest lifestyle that will reduce stressors related to the deaths of despair.

It can be difficult to identify what aspects of a person’s life are considered a necessity and which are not. However, as one lives their life as simple as possible without unnecessary, vain desires they will become aware of when to draw the line for their limited desires (Durkheim [1897] 2006). There is no rule book in place that tells people how one should live their life. For it is up to one to determine their limits through their intuition and conscience mind. If one fails to do so they can be “disregarding the moral order” which is an act of anomie and egoism (TenHouten, 2016).

Durkheim thoroughly describes all areas of anomic suicide and each area of anomic suicide relates to deaths of despair in one way or another. Deaths of despair among middle aged white Americans are lacking the effort to live by the moral order created for society. Anomic suicide is able to identify ways one can create their life around the current social structure and still implement moral structure into their lives. One can do so by becoming consciously aware of everything they do and the impact it has on life and society entirely. By doing so one will be able to find inner peace and stop the never ending wants from populating and begin to simplify their life as much as they wish. This is a process that can take a lengthy amount of time but through dedication one is able to accomplish emotional stability, identify their true desires and become more productive in everything they do.

Durkheim affirmed, “The wise man who knows how to enjoy the results that he obtained without continually feeling the need to replace them with others, find them in them the wherewithal to hold on to life when the difficult times come”. By simply finding the self-discipline it takes to overcome the urge of giving in to social influences can be a lesson that will allow someone to complete the entire process of creating moral structure in one’s life.      

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Deaths Of Despair And Emile Durkheim‘s Ideas To Prevent Them. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 5, 2022, from
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