More study, answers needed

Posted on February 7, 2014. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns | Tags: , , , , |

A decade ago, the Jonesboro community suffered three suicides (and one related homicide) in three days. A dozen years before that, the Sheridan community reeled from three student suicides in two days.

All across America, families deal with the tragic losses created by suicide at more than twice the rate than that of homicide.

Yet suicide rarely commands the same headlines.

That’s partly (and rightly) out of respect to families, loved ones and friends, since suicide is a more private affair.

It’s also partly because suicide is often so incomprehensible. Motives for murders are often traced to simple, understandable themes: greed or gain, revenge or anger, drugs or desperation.

All too frequently, suicides leave only puzzling questions and an endless, torturous search for answers.

The statistics surrounding suicide contain both surprising and expected data. In measurements going back to the 1950s, males have consistently been four times more likely than females to commit suicide.

Depression and substance abuse are both heavily linked to attempted and successful suicides, ranging in study estimates from between 75 percent to 90 percent of cases.

National suicide rates have varied only mildly since 1950, but when categorized among age groups and states, major disparities arise. Overwhelmingly, suicide was an adult phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s, when the rate was above 20 deaths per 100,000 population for every age segment above 45 years old. The highest rate (31 per 100,000) occurred among adults ages 75-84.

By 1980, however, a major shift was under way. The suicide rate among adults age 65 and older had been cut in half. But the rate among youth ages 15-24 had tripled.

About 38,000 suicides are reported annually (some experts believe the total is much higher), of which about 400 occurred in Arkansas, which has less than one percent of the total U.S. population.

In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study measuring suicide-rate changes among states between 1999 and 2010, Arkansas’ 54 percent increase landed us at sixth on the list. And from 2006-2010, the second leading cause of death among Arkansans ages 15-24 was suicide.

Suicide is often preventable, and significant resources and recourses exist in Arkansas for awareness and prevention. Obviously, for anything preventable, the objective is to see a reduction rather than an increase in rates, and measurable data is a couple of years behind.

To be effective, prevention requires greater awareness and understanding. Perhaps most importantly, it requires the eradication of the historical stigma that hovers around mental illness—which is a tall order.

But while prevention ought to be a priority in tackling the tragedy of high suicide rates (especially among the young), an equal priority ought to be research. There must be reasons high school- and college-age kids commit suicide at a rate three times that of their counterparts 50 years ago.

After all, the mental health stigma was exponentially more pronounced then, and suicide-prevention organizations, plans and programs were a fraction of what they are today.

With expanded mental health acceptance and enormous preventive resources at work in 2014, it defies all logic that suicides among any age group would be higher now than in 1950.

The causes for higher suicide rates must transcend lack of awareness and prevention, and be attributable to other changes, most likely other combinations of social and cultural changes.

Nobody has the answers primarily because nobody is looking really hard to find them, because the search for answers often runs headlong into political posturing (just like crime-cause research does).

Some anti-gun activists have tried to correlate lax gun laws with high suicide rates, for example. But that approach is flawed from the start, because it assumes illegal guns do not exist (since they aren’t registered). A better comparison factor might be gun crime, but then the argument falls apart immediately because Washington, D.C., has one of the lowest suicide rates despite having one of the highest gun-crime rates.

There aren’t any simplistic answers, which is why some in-depth behavioral studies are in order that won’t be stymied by sacred political cows.

Depression is a major factor in suicide. Figuring out why young Americans suffer so much more from depression than in decades past won’t be easy.

Is it a byproduct of materialism? There’s much evidence to support a claim that Americans covet and value things more than they used to, but by the same token, young people enjoy many more material possessions than in 1950. They live in bigger houses, drive newer cars, have smartphones and play video games, etc.

A symptom of a less religious society? Declines in church attendance can be easily demonstrated, but that fails to explain suicide cases of children from faithful households and backgrounds.

The fact is we don’t have enough facts to fully understand the why of increasing suicide rates. We have to ask some tough questions (and likely step on toes doing so) and be ready to confront some inconvenient realities.

But the stakes are too high not to. Young lives are the posterity mentioned in our Constitution, and that makes them precious—and needed.

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