In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives. According to a sobering report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this figure reflects an overall 30 percent increase in the rate of suicides since 1999.
That suicide has reached epidemic status in the US – it is now the 10th leading cause of death – is no secret to public health researchers, as the upward trend has been noted with growing concern for many years. Yet when tasked with examining state-by-state trends in order to inform improved prevention campaigns, the government researchers revealed just how dire the issue has become.
Between 1999 and 2016, the rates of suicide among adult men and women and children over 10 went up in 49 out of 50 states. Nevada, the one exception to the pattern, has had a consistently high rate the entire time.
Twenty-five states across the nation saw rates rise by more than 30 percent, and the Midwest region, in particular, appears to be in crisis – Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Kansas, and Oklahoma each showed increases from 38 to 58 percent. More than 48 percent of all decedents ended their life using a gun.
Hoping to illuminate the characteristics shared by suicide decedents and identify what circumstances may have led them to act, the researchers analyzed all 2015 cases entered in the CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System – a database that includes 27 states.
Though this type of data collection will never be able to perfectly capture the complexity of each person’s case, the results indicated that 54 percent of suicides occurred in individuals without known mental health conditions.
The non-diagnosed cases were also more likely to have recently gone through a personal crisis such as the death/loss of a loved one, a relationship problem, substance abuse, health-related problem, or financial hardship. Twenty percent of those with undiagnosed conditions and 15 percent with known conditions were serving in the military at the time of death.
Of course, just because there is no official diagnosis on the books does not mean the individual was not suffering from mental health issues. Joshua Gordon, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, explained to the Washington Post that this finding likely represents the upsetting but well-documented pattern of individuals, particularly men and people of color, not seeking psychological or psychiatric help.
Because they cannot make conclusions about specific factors responsible for the troubling increase in suicide rates, the researchers call for states to adopt comprehensive suicide prevention strategies that provide emotional, logistical, and financial support "downstream" (to those already diagnosed with mental health conditions) and promote healthy coping mechanisms and stigma-free discussions of these issues "upstream".
“I think this gets back to what do we need to be teaching people — how to manage breakups, job stresses,” Christine Moutier, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told the Washington Post. “What are we doing as a nation to help people to manage these things? Because anybody can experience those stresses. Anybody.”
“If you think of [suicide] as other leading causes of death, like AIDS and cancer, with the public health approach, mortality rates decline,” Moutier said. “We know that the same approach can work with suicide.”
If you or someone you know are in crisis, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day. The service is available to anyone and all calls are confidential. Or you can visit their website here.