By now, you have probably heard that suicide rates in the United States have increased sharply over the past two decades.
There was a lot of media coverage after fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took their own lives. Their suicides happened around the same time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report showing a 25 percent increase in suicide in the U.S. since 1999. Suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
Deborah Stone, a behavioral scientist at the CDC, said the increase wasn’t surprising, as researchers have been seeing these rates going up for a long time.
“The data really speak volumes that the problem is getting worse, and what is really needed is suicide prevention,” Stone told VOA.
She said the risk factors are similar to the risk factors for homicides or mass killings. A person has relationship problems, including conflicts with a spouse or partner, is a victim of bullying, breaks up with or loses a loved one.
Substance abuse can also be involved. In 2016, there were 64,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. Some of the deaths were not intentional, but some were.
Homelessness, loss of a job, and financial problems are also risk factors, as are health problems.
Stone said both physical and mental health problems make people more vulnerable to committing suicide. The report said almost half of those who committed suicide had a known mental health condition, but more than half — 54 percent — did not.
Jennifer Payne, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said just because the CDC reported a majority of those who committed suicide did not have a known mental illness, does not mean they didn’t have one.
“I think it’s likely that a majority of cases of suicide are related to a mental health diagnosis,” she said.
The illness could have been undiagnosed, or because of the stigma associated with mental illness, people may have not sought treatment.
Psychiatrist Bashkin Kadriu at the National Institute of Mental Health said, “When you do that psychological autopsy, or the examination of people who have committed suicide, over 90 percent of them have an undiagnosed mental illness.”
In the U.S., mental health treatment is often expensive. Not all psychiatrists accept insurance, which puts treatment out of reach for many. Payne attributes this to a shortage of psychiatrists.
Payne treats depression, which often leads to suicide, and depression is not always a life-long affliction. It can intensify for a while, and it can also go away. It can also be treated with medication.
Paul Gionfriddo, head of Mental Health America, an advocacy group, said it’s no surprise suicide rates have risen.
“The time frame of the CDC report is troubling in that by using 1999 as a reference point, it captures what has happened in post-9/11 America. During that time, we have been subjected to major traumatic events, and our young people have fought in two very long and seemingly endless wars,” he said.
Gionfriddo said trauma and exposure to violence cause mental health conditions which, in turn, can lead to suicide.
The CDC report found that most suicides were committed in rural areas where people lack access to immediate care and where they often live in isolation — yet another risk factor.
Most U.S. suicides are also committed with guns.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, head of the American Public Health Association, told VOA that people who buy guns, even for self- protection, are at more risk of being hurt by their own gun than to be shot by a stranger.
He said the gun lobby has prevented research on how to make guns safer.
“For political reasons, people are not doing the kinds of things you would normally do if we had airplanes crashing every day,” Benjamin said.
Stone said the main thing is that suicide is preventable.
“It’s a public health problem that requires a public health approach. It’s not just due to one thing. And so, our strategies need to be multifaceted to address all of the range of suicides,” she added.
Suicide is a global problem, as well. The World Health Organization reports that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds, and that 75 percent of all suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries.
Close to 800,000 people die by suicide every year. Nearly 45,000 people took their lives in the U.S. in 2016.