The suicide “epidemic”

In the wake of recent high-profile suicides of young adults over sexual orientation, the media has been buzzing with words like “surge” and “buzz.” I was curious about whether such a phenomenon was really occurring.

First off, it’s very important to keep in mind that, sadly, about 4000 young people (15-24) choose to end their own lives each year in this country. That in itself is a tragedy. That means about a dozen young adults choose to commit suicide each day. Every day.

Right now, we as a nation are focusing on a half-dozen suicides in the few months; these suicides represent only a very small fraction of all the suicides. The tendency to get carried away by anecdotal evidence and conclude that it represents a trend is very high, and very human.

Unfortunately, the CDC only appears to make publicly available the cause of death up to 2007. However, it does provide enough data to see if there are any trends over the last decade (1999-2007). Here is that data, charted:

(7/28/21: Chart not available.)

There has been a noteworthy increase in only two age groups: Older adults. Since the ranking of suicide as a cause of death has remained the same for each of these groups over time (fifth and ninth, respectively), it’s probably that part of this increase is due to the general Graying of America.

The data certainly does not suggest any increase in suicides among younger people. Of course, it’s possible that there’s been a true statistical surge in the last year or so; the CDC apparently won’t make that data publicly available until 2013 or so (and if someone is aware of a source for more recent data, I welcome it). However, I’m hesitant to suggest the “surge” and the “epidemic” are real without data to support that.

This is not a trivial distinction, either. Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd, and a concern of mine is that, prompted by news reports that inadvertently suggest that suicide sends an effective message, some teens who may otherwise have chosen to struggle through their pain will choose to send a message instead.

I realize the opposite is the intention of the people promoting messages like “it gets better”: They feel, I’m sure, that if one teen avoids death as an option as a result of the message, it was a worthy message. I’m concerned of the opposite: That if one teen chooses death as an option as a result of the message, what have we done? How do we frame the message to anyone who is suffering, who is pain, who is being victimized, that there are other options, without communicating that suicide can serve an effective purpose?

Another thing that I learned in doing this research is that there’s a gender-bias in suicide, and one that’s different that I expected. Domestic violence is usually talked about as a women’s issue, even though a significant minority of victims are male.

However, I don’t normally see suicide being discussed as a men’s issue. Yes, there are tacit suggestions (such as, of the half-dozen suicides being discussed right now, only one—Pheobe Prince—is female). Since the mainstream media tends to be sexist anyway, focusing more on males than on females except on specific “women’s issues,” this situation didn’t seem much different. And if I’d been asked to guess prior to looking it up, I’d’ve thought that more females than males choose suicide.

Therefore, it surprised me to learn that, comparing the percentage of suicides which are male to the percentage of Domestic Violence-related homicides with female victims, those numbers are the same. In 2007, 78% of all suicides in the U.S. were male; in 2005, 78% of all DV-related homicides involved female victims. Edit: It occurred to me later that this doesn’t necessarily mean that those killed were the victims of DV; I’m not sure how the CDC is counting, and they could be including cases where victims killed their abusers. However, this ratio isn’t far off from the findings of the National Violence Against Women Survey, which reports, “Nearly 25 percent of surveyed women and 7.6 percent of surveyed men said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former spouse, cohabiting partner, or date at some time in their lifetime; 1.5 percent of surveyed women and 0.9 percent of surveyed men said they were raped and/or physically assaulted by a partner in the previous 12 months.” It’s a fair point that this refers to the ratio of DV victims, not the gender ratio on a per-incident level, but even so, if DV is so clearly a “women’s issue,” why doesn’t suicide even wander into the realm of a “men’s issue”?

(7/28/21: Chart not available.)

The gender disparity on suicide is the highest among the young adults that have been discussed: About five out of six suicides aged 15-24 are male. That number is absolutely astounding to me, and it’s not new. Indeed, the general trend from 1999 to 2007 was towards a slight decrease in the disparity.

(7/28/21: Chart not available.)

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this disparity, but it definitely gave me pause to reflect on it.

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