The deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain last week have drawn attention to suicide. Why is it that people who are at the pinnacle of the world in material terms – who are celebrities, who have wealth that is beyond the wildest dreams of 95% of the world’s population, who live in peace and plenty – why do such people kill themselves? Stepping back, why are Americans, people from the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, killing themselves in such numbers? This was something that we looked at a couple of years ago, and with suicide in the news again; it is a good time to revisit the disturbing trends.
Since 1999 the suicide rate in the USA has increased by about 25 per cent. In half of the US states, the rate was 30 per cent. The highest increases were in states in the west and mid west – Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho and Utah. But also in Vermont and New Hampshire in the North East. In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives, meaning that 16 out of every 100,000 people in the USA will take their own lives.
So what is causing the USA’s suicide rate to track up? According to Dr Stone of the Centre for Disease Control, the major reasons that lie behind a decision to take one’s own life are fairly consistent: money troubles; legal troubles; relationship troubles; and substance abuse. However, more rural areas in the west and mid-west have a history of high suicide rates due to the lack of proper institutional support and care while the more isolated existence that many in these states have contributes to higher suicide rates than the national average.
Although some of the increase can perhaps be put down to better reporting of suicide throughout the country, the president of the American Association of Suicidology (who knew there was such a society!), Prof Julie Cerel, argues that there is a lack of funding for mental health research and preventative care.
“Our mental health systems are just really struggling across the country,” Prof Cerel says. “In terms of training mental health professionals, we're not doing a great job.”
As of 2018, only 10 states mandate suicide prevention training for health professionals.
Prof Cerel also notes that while the gun control debate fixates on high profile mass shootings, two-thirds of gun deaths in the USA are suicides.
We’ve talked before about “deaths of despair” in America due to suicide, violence, drugs and alcohol. One would hope that if such deaths continue to climb in the years ahead, then policy makers, thinkers and the wider public will start to seriously think about what is causing such deaths. Why is it that so many Americans are thinking that their lives are not worth living? What signals do we inadvertently send that reinforce that impression?