Though suicide in the U.S. has increased 35 percent in the last 20 years and is now the second leading cause of death among people age 10 to 34, Mueller is one of the only sociologists to concentrate on the issue.
Suicide has traditionally been the domain of what Mueller calls the “psy” sciences: psychology and psychiatry. The few sociologists, most famously Émile Durkheim, who have written about suicide tend to consider it the result of social isolation. And government health agencies like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adopt much the same line, believing that social ties are always a beneficial counteractive.
Mueller has overturned that orthodoxy. As she explains, “my research really demonstrates how connectedness can actually become toxic, such that it gives rise to suicide and even repeating suicide clusters.”
As she asks, “Have you ever lived in a small town? Where everybody knows everybody and if you do something that’s just slightly outside of what’s considered acceptable, you get a whole heap of shame poured on you, and your private business becomes public?”
Though Mueller emphasizes that she doesn’t have all the answers, her research demonstrates that in tightly integrated, homogenous communities, intense social pressure to conform and to achieve, along with the stigma attached to seeking out mental health services, can contribute to youth suicide rates.