Fed groups aim to fight increasing suicide rates
- By Nathan Abse
- Nov 25, 2019
Suicide, according to government statistics, kills around 48,000 people every year in the United States. This staggering loss—higher than the official current annual death toll of the opioid epidemic, and almost as high as the nation’s military deaths in the Vietnam War—is not only a shocking figure, but one that so far the country has not faced with same clarity as either a drug epidemic or war (though, as our expert this week points out, the suicide epidemic is directly related to drugs and guns). Federal employee organizations, such as the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, have recently publicized their concerns on the issue, and events such as "Out of the Darkness" suicide awareness walks in many cities, aimed at reducing the horrific toll. Nathan Abse speaks with Dr. Asim Shah, Baylor College of Medicine’s Chief of Community Psychiatry. Shah outlines the problem, offers several reasons behind why it has worsened, and argues that society and government must address it with new focus and resources.
Q&A with Dr. Asim Shah, M.D.
Why has suicide increased so much in this country in recent decades—and what are some of the factors in people's lives driving that increase?
Dr. Shah: That’s true—the increase. Twenty years ago, in 1999, the suicide graph showed an incidence of about 10 per 100,000 per year. In that year it started increasing, and recently sharply. It became about 12, then 13, per 100,000—and by 2017 it was about 14 per 100,000. That’s like nearly a 40 percent increase. What’s so sad about this is that we, as a society, have kind of had an emphasis, a lot of discussion, about mental health in this time. But if we cannot control the worst severe complication, let’s say, of mental health problems, then what are we doing, actually? Right?
Right—that’s shocking, suicide up by almost half—so, again, what are some of the causes?
Let’s look at the factors. First of all, over 50 percent of the suicides—about 51 percent actually—involve firearms. Firearms are the number one lethal means to harm yourself. So, we also know that the number of guns, and the access to guns, have both increased greatly over this period. Around 300 million guns, something around that figure. So, increased numbers of guns and access to guns—that’s a factor. Not that everyone who has a gun will use it this way, of course not. But if you are impulsive, depressed, suicidal, and you are likely in this circle of greater access to firearms, this is a means that has grown quite a bit and helps to explain the increase.
Number one factor, or change, leading to the massive increase in suicide is guns—what’s another?
Dr. Shah: Right, so guns are number one. Another reason, or means, is drugs. We have a lot more drugs surfacing in the country, and these drugs are causing an enormous amount of the problem. For example, if you live in the Northeast—New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, etc.—you see even more of this, statistically, with opiate overdoses. They are extremely common, among white men especially—middle aged white men especially.
Number two factor or means, then, leading to suicide rise, you’re saying is more, and more deadly, drugs—but why is that more prevalent among white males?
Dr. Shah: Yes, this is another reason. Sometimes the drugs are suicide and sometimes suicide by accident. Look, it seems more middle age men are living more in desperation. That really leads to more suicide. Why are they living this way? You could say it is the opioid crisis itself. Another factor is that middle aged white men—especially as they get older—often have many medical problems and some of the highest medical bills. I said desperation. Because if you have the most medical bills, and you have now many of these people the least ability to pay, financially, what do you do? And as they get older, each elderly person is on eight to 10 medications. How will you pay for them? Many cannot. All of this contributes to the rise in suicide. The opioid crisis. The medical problems with age. The highest medical bills, and as white males, the least help and the least ability to pay them.
View the Nov. 25 issue of FENDfor the full interview.