Thoughts on the Suicide Epidemic

Suicide rates are at historic highs. What does that say about us?

Posted Mar 31, 2019

The suicide rate in the United States is higher than it has been since at least 1950. Nearly 50,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017 and when the final tally is made official, it would not be surprising to find that we have surpassed the grim benchmark in 2018. A few years ago, deaths by suicide surpassed the total number of deaths in motor vehicle accidents (which says something not only about the climbing suicide rate but also about the increasing safety of our vehicles).

Some recent observers have suggested that the rise in youth suicides can somehow be attributed to the widespread use of smartphones. This highly unlikely supposition ignores the fact that the youth suicide rate was higher in the 1990s that it is now. Worse, it ignores that fact that the biggest increases in suicide rates aren't happening among the youth, but among the middle-aged. When I was in graduate school, it was a given that the elderly had the highest suicide rates—that older white males were the core suicide demographic. Now that men in their 40s and 50s are killing themselves at greater rates, the suicide numbers are exploding—there are quite simply far more people in their 40s and 50s than there are in their 70s and 80s. Rates among the elderly remain high, but the rise in mid-life suicides is a worrying phenomenon. In some ways, the youth suicide rate could be said to be "coming along for the ride" with the increases in the older generation. Granted, youth suicide is a terrible problem and for more than the grim public health statistic of Years of Life Lost (YLL). Years of Life Lost is used to calculate the relative impact of various diseases and conditions. Prostate cancer is bad, of course, but, according to the epidemiologists, it's not as bad as suicide because the people who die by prostate cancer tend to be older—they have fewer expected years left to live. Suicide is increasingly taking people in what has traditionally been their prime, thus increasing the YLL statistic and hence the burden of suicide on society.

I will make the not terribly bold statement that too many people are dying by suicide in our society, just as too many are dying by drug overdose. The opposite of that statement is, to my ears, horrifying—that somehow just the right number of people are dying of suicide. If I am correct and there is an excess of deaths, what could the reason for this be? Access to firearms is often cited, and it is true that since even before the election of President Obama, Americans have been "investing" heavily in firearms (partly out of fear that their sale might be curtailed). However, from my limited knowledge on the subject, it seems that while the number of privately held firearms has increased significantly, the percentage of American households containing guns has not substantially increased. The last time I checked, there were more firearms in the United States than motor vehicles, and about 40% of all households contained firearms. So, in any event, it is not necessarily the case that access to firearms has substantially increased. (It is true, by the way, that the leading cause of death for new handgun purchasers is suicide. It is also true that a firearm owner is far more likely to kill himself with a firearm than to kill someone else or to defend his home with a firearm.)

Unemployment rates and suicide rates have traditionally been positively correlated. For every 1-point increase in the unemployment rate, the suicide rate increases about 0.78. One-third of all people who die by suicide are unemployed at the time of their death. However, we are currently at record-low unemployment. So what gives? Well, we have to remember how unemployment statistics are generated. They are the percentage of people who are actively looking for work who cannot find paid employment. The unemployment rate does not include "discouraged workers"—people who have given up looking for work. For those numbers, you need to look at the Workforce Participation rate. For males, aged 45 to 54, the Workforce Participation rate was 86.3% in 2016. Nearly 14% of American men in their "peak earning years" were not working in 2016. This is a new development in our economy and one which the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to either continue or worsen.

Why should it matter that a man is not in the workforce? Wouldn't a Universal Basic Income or Social Security Disability Insurance solve the problem by providing for basic needs? Such programs are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Work gives a man a sense of purpose and an opportunity to exercise self-discipline and even, sometimes, achieve self-transcendence. It provides a community of like-minded fellows. It provides a sense of identity and belonging. Without a job, a man feels worthless, useless, and, eventually, hopeless. Sitting at home playing videogames is no relief, and neither is legalized cannabis. My best guess is that one reason the suicide rate has risen is that increasing numbers of us have been made to feel useless.