The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain shocked the nation, but suicide is nothing new, and it’s becoming far more frequent. In the USA, suicide rates have been rising since 1999. At first, the uptick appeared to be a statistical anomaly. Now, it’s apparent that the increase is real and it’s large. The suicide rate overall has increased about one-third in the last 18 years. A 33% jump in less than 20 years is unprecedented and frightening. Suicide is up in 49 states, with the exception of Nevada, where rates have dropped 1% since 1999. Picking out a common thread in the search for relative causation isn’t easy, but some trends in demographics are clear: most suicides are white men. Around 84% of suicides are white; 77% are men. What’s particularly troublesome is that only half of all suicides come from people with known mental health issues. Half of the instances originate out of seemingly nowhere. Note also that suicide rates are underreported. Two factors drive the underreporting of suicide: the stigma of suicide, and the potential for financial loss. Suicide is the third largest killer of young people under 30, but white, middle-class males make up a large proportion of the climb in suicides. The reason for the increase is unclear.
Many Factors, Not Many Answers
Some problems recur in looking at the causes of suicide. People with severe, chronic pain have higher suicide rates, and chronic pain is on the rise. So is substance abuse, which also correlates to suicide rates above the national average. The opioid epidemic has led to a wave of suicide in people with addiction issues. Chronic stress is a major psychological precursor to suicide. American life in the 21st century is synonymous with stress. Consider, too, military veterans. Suicide among vets has been rising for a decade, as the US has been mired in the Middle East since 2001. Suicide in veterans has outpaced even the national increase, reaching 35% over the prior high mark. In part, this is due to deaths by suicide of veterans who served post 9/11. Not all of those deaths are attributable to diagnosed PTSD. Many vets don’t carry that diagnosis, but still kill themselves.
There may be a particularly American factor that adds to suicidality: the pursuit of happiness. Americans focus on high levels of happiness as a measure of personal worth, as strange as that may sound. Constantly judging whether or not we’re deliriously happy may lead to a sense of relentless disappointment, verging on hopelessness. There’s the idea that if we are not happy all the time, we are somehow doing something wrong, or are even failures at life. For people who are already living under a burden of high stress, feelings of worthlessness amplify misery.