It is hard to pick up a book, a newspaper, or an online story these days without running into suicide. Today's New York Times has two stories related to suicide -- "What's Lurking Behind the Suicides," about Native Americans taking their lives; and a slightly more upbeat story called, "No Longer Wanting to Die," about interventions that work for suicidal thoughts. (I am currently writing a book review for the New York Journal of Books on a novel called A Cure For Suicide.)
Many of us ask ourselves, are the number of suicides going up, or is the media just telling us more about them? And is the United States alone in this, or are other countries also experiencing high levels of self-imposed death?
Each year, more than 40,000 Americans take their own lives, and in 2013, suicide rates were highest among people ages 45 to 64, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year a CDC study, which looked at 2012 U.S. mortality data, found Americans expected to live longer than ever but that the rate for suicide increased 2.4 percent. We are experiencing, as a nation, the highest rates of suicide in more than 25 years. The suicide rate is now 12.6 suicide deaths per 100,000 Americans, which is close to the rate of 12.8 in 1987.
What we also know from data is that suicide is disturbingly common among young people. Shockingly, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people in the U.S., after unintentional injury. More specifically, according to the most recent data available, suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34, and the third leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 14. Although young men between the ages of 10 and 24 are taking their own lives less often than they did 20 years ago, the suicide rate among young women is slightly higher than it was in 1994.
Suicide and thoughts about suicide start early. About 17 percent of high school students in the U.S. say that they have seriously considered suicide, and 8 percent say that they have made an attempt. Overall, at least 25 percent of children and adolescents have suicidal thoughts at some point during their lives.
Why does suicide occur?
The factors leading to suicide are as complex as human nature. According to the CDC, warning signs of suicide include a family history of suicide, a history of depression or other mental illness, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, a stressful life event or loss, as well as exposure to other people's suicidal behaviors. We also have to take into account post traumatic stress disorder, especially for returning veterans, economic distress and social dislocation. Lastly, we can't ignore the growing movement around death with dignity for those with terminal illnesses who want to choose to die.
The good news about all this is that we actually have better and more reporting about mental distress. For example, in the past few years more media reporting and research have appeared on the role of bullying -- particularly cyber bullying and suicide. The CDC has a Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System -- a biannual questionnaire of teens in grades 9-12 in all 50 states constructed to provide a representative sample of high school students in the United States. In a study on bullying in the United States, one team reports that depression and suicide are much more common in teens who have been the victim of bullying in school and/or electronically. Moreover, these risks were additive among teens who were the victim of both forms of bullying.
The United States is not alone in the area of suicides. More than 800,000 people die by suicide every year -- around one person every 40 seconds, according to WHO's first global report on suicide prevention. Some 75 percent of suicides occur in low- and middle-income countries. Globally, suicide rates are highest in people aged 70 years and over. (In some countries, however, the highest rates are found among the young. Notably, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year old people globally. In many parts of the world, the subject of suicide remains taboo. Only 30 countries in the world have national suicide prevention strategies.
What role do media play in the issue of suicide? Media coverage of suicides has grown both online and in traditional media outlets. Social networking has raised the level and preponderance of discussion of depression and suicide. Colleges and universities are paying more attention to the problem and recognizing the need for more on-campus resources. We also tend to hear more stories about suicide in "clusters" these days because of a phenomenon called "suicide clustering -- the instance of several consecutive suicides in a single window of time and space, and usually in one geographic region.)
Is media sensationalizing suicide?
Some studies have speculated that the way media report suicide may glamorize the act and promote imitation suicide behavior, but most experts say not talking about suicide ultimately prevents people who need help from coming forward. The truth is the media deserves credit for bringing the issue of suicide to light. Reducing the stigma of mental illness is half the battle. Removing taboos and encouraging open conversation is a positive step. We need more articles about depression, not less.
Suicide is not a happy topic but we need to hear about it and talk about. This is one issue where media can have a good impact. So, let's keep up the dialogue.
Tara D. Sonenshine is a lecturer at George Washington University and a practitioner of public diplomacy and public affairs.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.