2040 Demographics: Suicide and Public Health

DARK-THOUGHTS

As I’ve written previously in this blog, there are ways to track demographic trends that are fun and light-hearted: World Cup demographics last summer and bike kiosks in Omaha last week.

This week I focus on a trend that, though it has touched me only lightly compared to others, still weighs on my heart.

That trend is suicide.

For some time now I have been aware – as many people are – of the high levels of homicide in the U.S. and of various associated trends. (More on this in a future post.)

I was not aware that there are more than twice as many suicides as homicides in the U.S. every year.

Let me repeat that: There are more than twice as many suicides as homicides in the U.S. every year.

In 2010, for example, there were 38,357 deaths by suicide in the U.S. compared to 16,242 by homicide.

And, after trending down for over a decade from 1986 to 2000 (dropping from 12.5 to 10.4 deaths per 100,000 population), the suicide rate began increasing again in 2001 and in 2012, the latest year for which data are available, reached 12.6 per 100,000 people.

These trends are sobering in the aggregate, but they are especially troubling for specific groups:
- Men: The male suicide rate in 2012 was over 20 per 100,000 compared to about 5 per 100,000 for females, and for men aged 25-34 it is the second leading cause of death(accidents are first).
- White men in particular: White men comprised almost 2/3 of all 2012 suicides (though rates are also very high among American Indians).
- 45- to 64-year-olds: The steepest rise in suicide rates in the past decade has been among people in this age range.
- Residents of the Mountain West, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Alaska: In comparison, some states such as California, Hawaii, New York, and Illinois have low suicide rates, which may correlate to their relatively high Black and Latino populations (who experience lower suicide rates).

Most stark is the connection between suicide and mental health: The overwhelming majority – 90% or more - of those who commit suicide had a mental disorder when they died. These disorders had, however, frequently been unrecognized, undiagnosed, untreated.

Current demographic and social trends may affect suicide trends going forward.
The elderly suicide rate, for example, is among the highest when statistics are separated out by age. As the Baby Boomers age, there will be more and more elderly. Will this cause the suicide rate to increase? (Is the rise in suicide rates over the past decade for 45- to 64-year-olds connected to the Baby Boomers entering that age range?)

More fundamentally, though suicide has in the past been stigmatized and marginalized as an individualized problem, the Centers for Disease Control now track, analyze, and address it as a public health issue. Through the lens of population health, the CDC is now looking at data, working on community prevention, and operating across disciplines to bring suicide rates down.

Too late for many; hopefully not for others.

Palma Joy Strand

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