For the past 15 years, the suicide rate in the United States has gradually inched upwards year after year, reaching its highest point ever. This according to new research just published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Starting in 2006, it’s gone up about 2 percent per year, rising 24 percent in the study period from 1999 to 2014. Women fared worse than men, with women’s suicide rates rising 63 percent versus men’s 43 percent.
What does it all mean? Why are suicide rates increasing at all, instead of falling?
Contrary to the headlines, this isn’t a “surge” or a “dramatic” rise, but rather a very gradual rise over the course of 15 years. Of course, any increase is contrary to predictions. After all, we live in a time of relative prosperity and peace in our homeland. While the study period includes the time of the Great Recession, it also includes a period of economic growth.
The federal health agency’s last major report on suicide, released in 2013, noted a sharp increase in suicide among 35- to 64-year-olds. But the rates have risen even more since then — up by 7 percent for the entire population since 2010, the end of the last study period — and federal researchers said they issued the new report to draw attention to the issue.
The experts, not surprisingly, are stumped.
“It’s really stunning to see such a large increase in suicide rates affecting virtually every age group,” said Katherine Hempstead, senior adviser for health care at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“It’s very sobering and disappointing,” says Harold Koplewicz, a psychiatrist and president of the Child Mind Institute, a non-profit in Manhattan. “We’re not making progress. We’re actually going in the wrong direction.”
So what’s going on? Why are suicide rates rising when more people have more access to healthcare than at any previous point in U.S. history?
Connecting the Dots for Rising Suicide Rates
Forbes suggests, “Researchers say that access to firearms and abuse of addictive drugs, like opioids, could both be factors.”
And specific groups seem to be at much higher risk with a jump in their suicide rates during the study period. The New York Times notes, “American Indians had the sharpest rise of all racial and ethnic groups, with rates rising by 89 percent for women and 38 percent for men. White middle-aged women had an increase of 80 percent.” They also note:
Recent research has highlighted the plight of less educated whites, showing surges in deaths from drug overdoses, suicides, liver disease and alcohol poisoning, particularly among those with a high school education or less.
One expert blamed the economy, despite the economy improving over the past six years. Another expert blamed a growing divorce rate and more singles in the world, who are more socially isolated and lonely. The rise of social networks in the past ten years may have contributed to that social isolation, despite their intended purpose of drawing people closer together.
In short, researchers can’t conclusively answer the question of what’s driving this increase in the rate of suicide in the U.S. There are a multitude of factors that likely contribute to it, and it’s highly unlikely any one factor could be singled out as the cause.
Could Facebook Be Causing More Suicides Than Ever Before?
Coming back to that idea of social networks, such as Facebook, are contributing to the rise in the U.S. suicide rate, I find that there may be something there worthy of researchers pursuing further. If you’re already depressed, lonely, or socially isolated, checking a site like Facebook on a regular basis is likely to reinforce those depressive feelings, according to the research.
Inadvertently, Facebook has created a method that makes sad people feel even more sad about their lives, because of the social comparison that is happening that is the foundation of the service.
Does this single factor explain the rise in the U.S. suicide rate by itself? Highly unlikely. But it’s a real connection researchers have long been aware of and we know that Facebook depression is an actual thing, driven by these social comparisons.
While Facebook has done more in recent years to try and address suicidal behavior on its site, Facebook really can’t fix the underlying problem of its site reinforcing unhealthy social comparisons. That’s the fundamental issue, and one that Facebook won’t ever be able to easily fix (without breaking the entire purpose of the service).
Greater Access to Suicide Crisis Services, But Less Access to Actual Treatment
Today, more than at any other time in our history, people have greater access to suicide prevention services. Not only is there the suicide hotline (so old school, using a telephone: 800-273-TALK (8255)), but there are also services like the Crisis Text Line (Text “GO” to 741-741) and the Lifeline Crisis Chat. In other words, help is readily available for those seeking immediate support. Facebook now has built-in suicide support services (of questionable usefulness, after virtually ignoring the issue for the first 6+ years of its existence).
What about longer-term treatment and support? Sadly, the U.S. has cut — year after year — funding to public mental health services. And these are the services most needed by a person with severe clinical depression — a serious mental illness in need of long-term treatment. States routinely cut their funding for mental health services to their poor, because nobody seems to complain much on their behalf. And the federal government has done little to step up and help out.
Instead, we’ve become a nation completely happy that we’re warehousing people with severe mental illness not in our state hospitals any longer, but in our jails and prisons instead.
If you think your private insurance is better, think again. Try to make an appointment for your child to see a child psychiatrist through your health plan. I’d be surprised if the earliest appointment time you could get isn’t at least two months out. We’re a nation that has an increasing shortage of psychiatrists and other mental health professionals, and it’s only projected to get worse in the years to come.
Why has the suicide rate risen so much? Who knows for sure. But I can say it’s not going to get better any time soon without significant and meaningful investment in public mental health care moving forward.
Read the full New York Times article: U.S. Suicide Rate Surges to a 30-Year High