Monday, Nov 12, 2018
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America's suicide crisis

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VETS-SUICIDE

A veteran of the Second Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment casts a shadow in his apartment in Mesa, Ariz., in 2015.

NEW YORK TIMES/TODD HEISLER Enlarge

The suicide rate in the United States, which has been rising steadily in recent years, has reached the point of a national public health crisis.

New statistics released in June by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that suicide rates have ticked upward from 1999 to 2016. There were 35,000 in 1999 and nearly 45,000 suicides in the U.S in 2016. That was more than twice as many homicides in the country that year.

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The rising number of Americans killing themselves has made suicide the No. 2 cause of death for people 15-34 in this country.

Suicide victims are overwhelmingly male (77 percent) and white (84 percent), but the latest stats show that suicide rates are on the rise for every race and ethnic group and both genders.

The suicide crisis is even more pronounced with America’s military veterans. A Department of Veterans Affairs study released around the same time as the CDC’s general suicide data shows that veterans are more than twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide.

Montana was the state with the highest suicide rate. It also has one of the highest percentages of veterans in its population.

What may surprise many is that more than half the suicide victims in the United States did not have a diagnosed mental illness, though investigations after their deaths point to signs of undiagnosed mental health issues. And some observers believe that this statistic can tell us more than other suicide-related data.

One of the largest obstacles to addressing the suicide risk for many people is addressing the stigma attached to seeking help for suicidal thoughts or mental illness in general.

That makes the suicide crisis much like another public health crisis — the opioid addiction epidemic. The stigma attached to addiction prevents many drug users and their families from seeking or finding the help they need.

While experts are alarmed by the rising suicide rate, they are at a loss to explain it. Many point to several factors that are likely to contribute to rising suicide rates — a lack of access to mental health services, the relatively easy access to guns (which are used in about half of all suicides), and even a general sense of disconnection and social isolation in modern society. The concentration among vets, especially, one suspects, combat vets, is especially poignant and troubling. It become another serious VA issue that must be addressed.

Americans need to understand the climbing suicide rate as the crisis it is and devote the attention and resources necessary to reduce the rising loss of life. That means a massive public education program, similar to what the federal government, and many foundations and voluntary organizations, like the American Cancer Society, engaged in years ago for cigarettes. We also clearly need better and more urgent clinical intervention, especially in small towns, rural areas, and states like Montana. That, in turn, will require better designed programs and smarter allocation of resources on the local, state, and federal levels.

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