It’s easy to get lost in the inundation of studies and numbers and stats that hit the internet every day. But once in awhile something is released that should make people sit up and take notice. Today’s one of those days — the U.S. government’s National Center for Health Statistics has released a new data analysis showing that the U.S. suicide rate has hit a 30-year high.
The analysis covers the period from 1999 to 2014. Reporting on the findings in the New York Times, Sabrina Tavernise notes that the uptick is present in just about every group other than black men, for whom it declined, and for men and women over 75, for whom it remained stable.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly what’s going on, Tavernise writes, but they have some theories:
Julie Phillips, a professor of sociology at Rutgers who has studied suicide among middle-aged Americans, said social changes could be raising the risks. Marriage rates have declined, particularly among less educated Americans, while divorce rates have risen, leading to increased social isolation, she said. She calculated that in 2005, unmarried middle-aged men were 3.5 times more likely than married men to die from suicide, and their female counterparts were as much as 2.8 times more likely to kill themselves. The divorce rate has doubled for middle-aged and older adults since the 1990s, she said.
Dr. Alex Crosby, an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he had studied the association between economic downturns and suicide going back to the 1920s and found that suicide was highest when the economy was weak. One of the highest rates in the country’s modern history, he said, was in 1932, during the Great Depression, when the rate was 22.1 per 100,000, about 70 percent higher than in 2014.
Whatever the causes, Katherine Hempstead, senior adviser for health care at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, told Tavernise that “It’s really stunning to see such a large increase in suicide rates affecting virtually every age group.” And this is all part of the same story told by the equally scary numbers regarding deaths among middle-aged white Americans in recent decades, published by the economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case late last year — they specifically mentioned suicide as one of the likely causes of that trend.
In short: By the standards of rich countries, the U.S. is not doing a good job taking care of its citizens’ health and well-being. It’s a recurrent problem, unfortunately.