Uncle Sam’s sobering new report about suicide rates rising in all but one state between 1999 and 2016, with fatal increases across age, gender, race and ethnicity, became even more somber and urgent with the shock and grief expressed widely over the self-inflicted deaths of chef-raconteur Anthony Bourdain in France and fashion designer-entrepreneur Kate Spade in Manhattan.
Suicide no longer should be viewed solely as a personal mental health problem but also now as a public health crisis, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned. Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, told the Washington Post: “The data are disturbing. The widespread nature of the [suicide rate] increase, in every state but one, really suggests that this is a national problem hitting most communities.”
The suicides of Bourdain, 61, and Spade, 55, hit many hard, as was reflected in the extensive media coverage and social media reactions. Both Bourdain and Spade rose from modest circumstances, with abundant hard work, talent, personality, and ambition, to lead lives in the spotlight, and with an economic comfort that others would envy and consider glamorous. They were “successes.”
Both also wrestled, long and hard, with depression, and in Bourdain’s legendary raucous and adventuresome life, with alcohol and substance abuse. Both surprised many around them, some who knew them well, with the sudden taking of their own lives.
Much could be said about the two, as well as the tragedy of suicide.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
Here are some key points the CDC made, and the New York Times and Washington Post reported, about why the nation needs to be raising alarms and seeking actions to reduce spiking suicide rates:
- 45,000 Americans aged 10 or older died by their own hand in 2016. The increase varied widely by state, from a low of 6 percent in Delaware to more than 57 percent in North Dakota. The rate declined in just one state, Nevada, where it has historically been higher than average.
- Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and one of three that is increasing. The other two are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdose, in part because of the spike in opioid deaths.
- Firearms were by far the leading method, accounting for about half of suicides. That number has remained steady over recent decades.
- Slightly more than half of people who had committed suicide did not have any known mental health condition. But other problems — such as the loss of a relationship, financial setbacks, substance abuse and eviction — were common precursors, both among those who had a mental health diagnosis and those who did not.
- Men accounted for three-quarters of all suicides. The numbers were highest among non-Hispanic whites, and among those aged 45 to 65 years old.
- Individuals addicted to prescription opioids had a 40 percent to 60 percent higher risk of suicidal thinking. Habitual users of opioids were twice as likely to attempt suicide as people who did not use them.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and their heart-breaking struggle to access and afford safe, effective, and excellent medical care, including for what also can be their significant mental health needs.
Stigmatization sadly has inflicted too costly a toll on too many Americans, keeping them individually and we as a nation, from the range of mental health services that are so desperately needed. While Congress and the Obama Administration had started to put mental health care on a more even footing with funding for other illnesses and conditions, President Trump and his officials haven’t followed on. The president’s mocking of the mentally and physically challenged hasn’t been helpful, nor have partisans’ unceasing attempts to slash money for social support programs like Medicaid and Medicare that pay for mental health care for millions of poor and middle-income Americans.
Partisans also have made some terribly misguided or lame efforts with key factors affecting suicide rates — limping still on what should be a full-out war on the opioid crisis, fighting tooth and nail against sensible controls on guns and ammunition, and going the wrong way on decreasing economic and social inequality, inequity, and a lack of education and opportunity to battle what experts have dubbed the too prevalent “disease of despair.”
We need to spend more time, being there and talking, with troubled loved ones and friends, especially if they’re grappling with depression, a condition often tied to suicidal thinking or action. We need to help them, on a personal and societal level, boost their optimism and resilience, while reducing their isolation, loneliness, fear, and worry. We need to help them get professional help, never ignoring a potential cry for help disguised as a jest or behind smiles.
If the suicides of gifted notables like Bourdain and Spade don’t rip a big enough hole in our hearts to make us, individually and as a society, step up — now and in concerted fashion — to deal with this public health crisis, we also can’t ignore that officials just told us that our kids are killing themselves, too, in a tragic rising tide.