Suicide: America’s Grim Bellwether, Part 1

But there is a hidden hunger to talk about suicide. When I published an article which very frankly discussed my attempt, and the wider phenomenon, in December 2015 I was flooded with messages. People passionately thanked me for honestly writing about suicide in a way few others are willing. I realized there are millions of people out there desperate to discuss thoughts and feelings which society misinterprets and frowns upon, and so which are kept hidden – millions of people crying for redress, and relief.

As I delved deeper into both newspaper stories and the academic literature on suicide I discovered that at this point in modern times, more than ever, there is an urgent need to puncture the silence surrounding suicide, because its prevalence is escalating at alarmingly rapid rates both here and throughout the world. While deaths from homicides and most major diseases have decreased over the past 15 years, United States’ suicide rate has steadily increased, reaching its highest in 30 years in 2014 – 13 people per 100,000.5 More people die now from suicide than from car accidents, and it claims more than twice as many lives as homicide.6 A recent Newsweek article said our nation’s failure to curb its tenth-leading cause of death constituted an “epidemic”.7 In many other countries, including Japan and India, rates are even higher; the World Health Organization (WHO) is so concerned it released a special report in 2014 on the need to recognize suicide as a global public health issue and to improve prevention efforts.

The demographic group driving the trend in the U.S. are middle-aged adults, adding to a slew of recent studies indicating a new steady state of suffering, hardship and desperation among American breadwinners.8 Suicide rates for adults aged 35–64 years old are increasing faster than for any other age group, and the spike is sharpest for 45-64 year olds; since 1999, the rate for this group has increased 63 percent for women and 43 percent for men.9

During the exact same time period, middle-class incomes fell substantially in almost 90 percent of metro areas throughout the nation.10 Studies have shown a link between the recent rise in suicide and increased socio-economic distress.11

Analyses of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data show that suicides, along with substance abuse, are also responsible for an alarming spike in overall death rates for working class, white adults under age 65, off-setting the benefits from advances in medical treatment for conditions like heart disease.12

Suicide’s impact isn’t limited to the nearly 43,000 individuals who annually fall victim to it. An additional million individuals aged 18 and over attempt to take their lives yearly; 2.7 million Americans make a plan; and 10 million have suicidal thoughts13 – and those are conservative estimates, due to underreporting.

And then there’s the close family members – six per suicide decedent, on average – who have to contend with the unique, complicated form of mourning and emotional scars suicide leaves in its wake14: “The strong traumatic charge it carries ensures that the shock wave [suicide] generates will spread across an area that is quite disproportionate to its statistical rarity… It is a highly visible aspect of social life,” wrote Baudelot and Establet.15

To those who still prefer to turn a blind eye toward this growing problem – despite such alarming numbers – because they write suicide off as the act of the cowardly and crazy, perhaps the cost to society can sway them. In 2015 alone, suicide deaths cost the nation an estimated $51 billion in combined medical and work loss costs – that’s more than $1 million per casualty.16 Despite the human and public toll, however, research behemoths like the National Institute of Health and CDC continue to devote far greater sums of money to finding cures for diseases and social problems which kill far fewer Americans. In fiscal year 2015-2016 the CDC earmarked no money for suicide intervention, while spending $788.7 million on HIV/AIDS prevention and research17– even though the former kills more than the latter. The authors of a Journal of Clinical Psychology article surmised the cause of this gaping disparity is likely stigma.18

I spend a lot of time now wondering how I went from a shy but happy girl who devoured books and taped foil around my wrists, spinning until I’d turn into Wonder Woman, to the woman who turned instead into a ravaged, emaciated, hopeless, and self-loathing 41-year-old that jumped off a building this past year. Just 12 years prior I had been a thriving newspaper journalist who’d successfully steered clear of the mental health system that shamed and stigmatized me in high school. But in 2004, I decided to give that system another try when I entered a residential treatment program during a period of worsening struggle.

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3 comments

  1. Charlotte says:

    Well said. Again. It must be infinitely frustrating to hope to be heard. Your writing is stunningly accurate and nerve-touching. It is all you can give the world and ears in hopes of being heard.

    I am witness to the wickedness of society in it’s culpibility regarding despair. Despair of all sorts, but financial failing, lack of mental health resources, accepted and promoted stigmas about what constitutes physical beauty, thus acceptance of an insane model, to name a few. My own grievance is how we have abandoned our combat veterans in their time of need, after the sacrifice they gave.

    We are a selfish world in despair. We are imploding. Can it be stopped?

  2. Ilana says:

    Amazingly written. Don’t ever stop writing, you truly have a gift. But more than that, please continue to speak out about these issues and spread awareness. You are producing truly meaningful work.

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