Suicides are a growing problem in the United States. In a new reportreleased this month by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the CDC concluded that suicides have increased more than 25 percent between 1999 and 2016.
Unfortunately, there’s very little context offered by most of the articles in the media. Most focus only on the few data points mentioned in the CDC’s press release. The headline about 25% growth tells us little about if the current rate is high or low by historical standards.
But there seemed to be a common tendency in media coverage: in spite of this widespread lack of context, the articles in the media tended to jump immediately to seeking public-policy solutions to the rising suicide rate.
For example, The Los Angeles Times asked a Virginia physician what might be a cause of the problem. His answer? A lack of “economic assistance.” In other words: too little welfare spending is the problem. National Public Radio, meanwhile, decided that more gun control might help: “American suicide is predominantly a firearm issue” NPR quoted a psychologist as saying. The problem? Too little gun control.
Other efforts to politicize the issue included this attempt to make suicide out to be something that’s affecting women more than men. This article at Health.com points out that suicide rates have been rising faster for women than men over the past 15 years. (Never mind, of course, that the suicide rate for men is four times the suicide rate for women.) But what could be the cause of this rising rate among women? According to the article: “being paid less than men.”
So, basically, whatever your particular political hobbyhorse is, that must be the solution to any suicide problem we have.
In order to gauge the magnitude of this 25% increase in suicides since 1999, we’ll need to look at American suicides over a long time frame. Looking at suicides since 1960, we find it looks like this1:
So, it’s true that the suicide rate has increased by more than 25 percent since 1999. But we might also say that the suicide rate has decreased 6 percent since 1977. Or, we might say that the suicide rate in in the United States is now at a rate that was pretty typical during the 1960s, 1970s, and much of the 1980s.
Surely, none of this is reason to celebrate. We want to see suicide rates decreasing over time. But, if we’re going to spin theories about why the suicide rate is increasing, the fact that women are being paid less than men (presumably for the same work, which isn’t even true) then shouldn’t that be a new thing? Are we to believe now that women were being paid equally to men in 1989, when suicide rates were lower?
Clearly, the incomplete picture being painted by the latest flurry of articles on the matter aren’t telling us much.
Moreover, if we look at suicide rates internationally, we find that the United States is rather unremarkable. So, while we’re to believe that the American welfare-state’s alleged lack of funding may be the cause, or if the presence of guns is the cause, it’s going to require some massaging of the numbers to make the US look like any sort of outlier here. 2
Moreover, a constant theme in the media’s coverage is that economic stagnation or economic misfortune is a likely culprit in causing suicide. This may very well be the case in some places in America. But overall, it’s not at all clear that economic misfortune in general causes suicide. After all, many countries with far, far lower standards of living than the US have lower suicide rates than the US, including Mexico, Peru, Chile, Colombia, Portugal, and Greece. And in a report released last year, the UN concluded that Europe is the region with the world’s highest suicide rate. The lowest regional rate, on the other hand, was found in the “Eastern Mediterranean” region which includes places like Palestine and Syria.3
On the gun issue, of course, any number of countries with far stricter gun control laws than the United States have considerably high suicide rates — such as Japan and Korea. And when it comes to teenage suicides , the US has an even fewer suicides, comparatively, than suicides overall.
[RELATED: “Guns Don’t Cause Suicide“]
It’s telling, however, that in the overwhelming majority of media coverage on the matter, the assumed solutions to the problem — a problem whose historical uniqueness is being overstated — is assumed to be primarily a matter of public policy.
The narrative seems to be this: you have some suicides? Just pass a law, increase some government spending, or ban some guns. Ignore the financial costs and opportunity costs. Surely that will solve the problem!
Part of this is because this fits into the world view of what both the journalist and the quoted “expert” often believe.
But consider if the range of acceptable opinion on such matters were more broad.
In a 2016 journal article published by the Journals of the American Medical Association, the researchers concluded that church attendance among women is likely to significantly decrease one’s odds of committing suicide. As The Los Angeles Times reported at the time:
Compared with women who never participated in religious services, women who attended any religious service once a week or more were five times less likely to commit suicide…
But, it’s hard to imagine many expert physicians telling CNN that people ought to increase religious devotion as a strategy in avoiding suicide.
Instead, the solution is usually just “pass law X.”
Other possible factors have nothing to do with public policy, either. For instance, people who move to a new home frequently have long shown a greater tendency toward suicide, and “many macrolevel studies have observed an association between aggregate rates of geographical mobility and suicide.”
And, as The Washington Post notes:
[The researchers in a Danish study] focused on a number of negative outcomes including suicide attempts, criminality, psychiatric disorders, drug abuse, and unnatural mortality. Moving during childhood was linked to increased incidence of all these negative outcomes later in life. Moving multiple times in a single year made long-term harms even more likely…
If one is going to try to pin some specific problem in American society related to suicide, this one is as big a culprit as any: the US has a notably high residential mobility rate . Meanwhile, countries where people rarely move, such as Spain and Italy, have remarkably low suicide rates.
This may also show up in regional differences for suicide in the United States. Suicide, after all, is an especially big problem in the western region of the US.
Consider this map:
And then consider this map:
It may be a coincidence, but it may also be that areas with the most rootless and mobile populations create conditions that lead to higher suicide rates.
No one, however, is considering laws that would discourage people from moving from state to state. It’s simply accepted that, even though research suggests moving increases risk of suicide in many cases, it’s a decision best left up to individuals.
But, when it comes to gun control, or more government spending, or passing some new government regulation, then we already know the “solution.”
On the other hand, as Mark Thornton has shown , we could do some good by repealing laws that have long been doing damage. Given the damage that government prohibitions have done in regards to drug abuse — itself blamed as a cause of suicide — leaving people alone to make their own healthcare choices might do a lot of good. But don’t expect CNN to mention that.
- 1.Sources: https://data.oecd.org/healthstat/suicide-rates.htm; https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml; https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr66/nvsr66_06.pdf
- 3.Note also that foreign-born Americans — which tend to have lower incomes than native born Americans — have lower suicide rates than native-born. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3733100/