A few days ago our local paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, ran an article from a pediatrician. The writer talked about two parents of his patients who had recently committed suicide and speculated that the poor economy and chronic unemployment were contributing to a rise in suicide rates. The article caught my eye because three men of my acquaintance, one of them a friend, had killed themselves in the past year. To the best of my knowledge none was motivated primarily by acute economic stress, although the poor economy may well have interacted synergistically with other sources of despair.
Curious whether suicide rates were actually rising in tandem with unemployment and economic recession, I looked up the Center for Disease Control’s mortality reports for 2009 and 2010 (the latest reports available), 2000 and 2004, and compilations of data going back to 1900. The data tend to support a conclusion that the recession is at least correlated with an increase in suicide rates, but not a dramatic one.
Year total number of suicides rate/100,000 rank as cause
2000 29,350 10.7 11
2004 31,647 10.8 11
2007 34,598 11.5 11
2009 36,909 12.0 10
2010 37,793 12.2 10
Raw rates reflect other factors such as the age structure of the population, and data become less comparable as one goes further back in time. Rates seem to have been fairly stable for the last twenty-five years: The rate was below 10.7 in 1956, and 13.2 in 1950, when it was the twelfth leading cause of death. CDC statistical tables prior to 1975 list only the top ten causes of death, suicide does not appear on any of these lists.
1997 30,535 11.4 10
1991 30,810 12.2
1987 30,796 12.7
Don’t get me wrong. I miss and mourn the men lost to our community, one in particular. Their deaths were real tragedies. Those of us who were involved with any of them are racking our brains wondering if there was something left undone that would have given them more will to live.
Seeking professional health or adjusting the meds is an obvious answer, but somehow unsatisfactory. All three of my acquaintances who killed themselves had been under the care of mental health professionals for some time and were taking antidepressants. This has been true of every individual I have personally known in the last twenty years who has successfully committed suicide, and most of the much larger number of people who made serious unsuccessful attempts. Prevention of suicide is one of the most powerful arguments used to persuade people, on their own behalf or more commonly on behalf of family members, to seek psychiatric help and become habitual users of antidepressants. The data above, which show little or no change in rates associated with the adoption of major classes of antidepressants, reinforces my impression from personal experience that this approach is not particularly effective.
Note from Life As A Human
If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, there are many free resources you can contact to find understanding people you can talk to anonymously:
In the US – National Suicide Prevention Hotline
In Canada — Centre for Suicide Prevention
In Australia — Suicide.org