If you subscribe to the view (which I am sympathetic to) that a strong USA has been good for the world in the last sixty years (or at least better than the alternative), then the last few years will have been alarming. Many pundits seem to see the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as a symptom of an underlying societal malaise; while economically the debt-mountain is the increasingly large elephant in the room. If it were not for the fundamental problems of its closest rivals then America’s role as global hegemon would be under serious threat. As it is, in my lifetime I certainly expect at least a multi-polar world to develop and I wouldn’t be surprised to see us look back on 1989-2007 as some sort of global age of peace and prosperity. I hope I am wrong.
The societal malaise of the USA has been mentioned before on this blog and today I would like to bring to your attention another alarming trend from the shining city on the hill. In the fifteen years from 1999 to 2014 the age-adjusted suicide rate has grown by 24%. That rise has been seen across all age groups and for both sexes. Americans are now killing themselves at the rate of 13 per 100,000 people. Although this is very bad, the Economist does try to put it in context:
“The suicide rate declined steadily from 1986 until 2000, the date the CDC paper takes as its starting point. What is happening in America is a return to the mid-1980s rather than a leap into some lethal, dystopian future.”
Further, as the Economist notes, the US rate is still quite a bit lower than Belgium and France (the latter I can understand as the birthplace of existentialism…) although both of those countries have suicide rates trending downwards. While the USA’s rate is still higher than the Netherlands and Britain, both of those nations have also seen their rates increase in the last few years. However, these attempts at contextualisation do not win me over – as the graphic displayed by the Economist shows, the USA’s rate has steadily closed the gap over the last quarter-century with Belgium and France, it has pulled away from the rate of the Netherlands and Britain and it has climbed above Sweden and Germany’s rates which in 1980 were far above that of the USA. And, as Forbes notes here, over the past two decades the Russian and American suicide rates have converged: in 1996 the Russian rate was over three times that of the USA while in 2015 it was only 25 percent higher. At the same time as the USA’s rate is increasing, Russia’s is slowly declining. Why is it that the USA is returning to its 1980 level of suicide rates? Why is it that other countries are not? What does this say about how people see the future for themselves in the USA? Mark Adomanis writes:
“There are many things that are correlated with suicide, of course, namely substance abuse, mental health issues, unemployment, and gun ownership. But a large part of the reason that the increase in America’s suicide rate is so frightening is that it has thoroughly confused public health experts. There are theories, but no one really knows why, with each passing year, increasingly large numbers of Americans are taking their own lives.”
Within the USA itself the states with the highest suicide rates are those around the Rocky Mountains: from Montana to New Mexico and from Nevada to Colorado and Oklahoma. The explanation for this geographic distribution is that these states have high numbers of Native Americans and non-Hispanic whites which have a higher propensity to suicide than other ethnicities. (Horrifically, the suicide rate for Native American women went up by 89% in 1999-2014!) Further there are plenty of retirees in the desert states and males over the age of 75 are at the highest rate of committing suicide. (As a related aside, do these figures take into account euthanasia victims? If not, why not?)