As odd as it might seem suicide used to be against the law in the United States. Odd because how in the world could you punish a dead person for taking that final, fatal act? Still, some states continue to have laws on the books labeling attempted suicide as a criminal act, although prosecutions have been rare.
The latest statistics show more than 47,000 people killed themselves in the United States in 2017. Historically that number climbs higher every year. Who are these people and what is driving them to snuff out their lives?
There are no rock-solid answers. Depression and hopelessness seem to be the number one reasons cited. Depression over loss of a job or a personal relationship, financial stress or poor health are often mentioned. Every casualty comes with its own unique story but there are concerning trends everyone should be aware of.
According to the Centers for Disease Control suicide occurs in all demographic and ethnic groups but the rate of suicide is highest among middle aged white men. They killed themselves 3.5 times more often than women in 2017 and accounted for nearly 70% of all suicides.
Those statistics made me wonder if the modern-day habit of criticizing “white man’s privilege” had anything to do with these deaths. Harassment and bias against “old white guys” seem to be much more easily tolerated, even encouraged these days.
The occupations of men with the highest rates of suicide include construction jobs like carpenters or electricians. Mechanics, cable installers, commercial divers, illustrators, tattooists and pro sports athletes were also listed as among the top jobs of those who killed themselves.
The occupations of women who commit suicide most often include jobs in the arts, design, media or sports world. Also most frequently affected, women who work in protective service jobs such as a private investigator, a police officer or agent of the TSA. Health care jobs like dental assistants, massage therapists and pharmacy aides were also often represented.
Parents should take note of the CDC’s Youth Risk Behaviors Survey. 7.4% of kids in grades 9-12 reported that they had made at least one attempt at suicide in the previous 12 months. Females attempted suicide about twice as often as male students. Black students were at a higher risk than whites.
The most often method of committing suicide was by firearm, more than half the time the dead used a gun to end their life. Suffocation was the next most frequently used method, followed by poisoning. Interestingly, more than 54% of those who died by suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition. One day their loved ones simply found they had killed themselves.
The CDC website has a map of the U.S. showing the suicide rate in each state. As it stands now the top five suicide states are: Montana, Alaska, Wyoming, New Mexico and Idaho.
It is a myth that the dark and dreary days of winter or holiday time, like Thanksgiving and Christmas, are prime suicide times. In reality, it is the springtime months of April, May and early June that routinely register an uptick of despondent people succumbing to the dark side.
And sadly, there appears to be a copy-cat component – experts call it the “cluster” or “contagion effect” – most often following a high-profile suicide like celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain or fashion icon Kate Spade.
“When there’s a prominent suicide, we can see more suicides,” says Shari Sinwelski, of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Sometimes people may already be feeling very vulnerable, and they see someone who they can relate to and their vulnerabilities.”
One study conducted after comedian Robin Williams tragically took his life in 2014 showed that in the months following his death there was an increase in suicides of almost 10%. Another copycat effect was seen after the suicide of movie star Marilyn Monroe. During the month of her death in August 1962 there was a 12% increase in suicides. A National Institute of Health report explained the mindset of a susceptible suicidal person this way: “If a Marilyn Monroe with all her fame and fortune cannot endure life, ‘Why should I?’”
Studies have also shown that the way the media reports celebrity suicides can also increase the risk of additional deaths. The more sensational and romanticized the suicide coverage the more a vulnerable person could be triggered into the same fatal action. After questions about musician Kurt Cobain’s suicide were raised (was it really murder?) his wife tried to kill herself as well.
This is just a fraction of the information one should consume if they are worried about a loved one who may be contemplating suicide. The best advise is to be proactive and to engage the person in conversation about the way they are feeling, try to convince them to see a licensed therapist and above all don’t think by ignoring the fear that it will simply diminish.
That’s what many loved ones of suicide victims thought. And then it was too late.