The Hidden Geography of America's Surging Suicide Rate
You probably saw the headlines late last week: suicides among middle-aged Americans appear to have surged over the past decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found the suicide rate for people aged 35 to 64 jumped 28 percent between 1999 and 2010, a troubling development by any measure. This means more Americans now die of suicide than of car accidents.
Given the nation's recent economic history, it's understandable that everyone is looking to define the relationship between suicides and the recession. The CDC report itself cites several studies that point to a connection between the two.
The chart above shows the 10 states with the most significant increases in their suicide rates from 1999 to 2010, based on data from the CDC report. Wyoming tops the list with an increase of nearly 80 percent. North Dakota is second and Rhode Island third, both with increases of roughly 70 percent. Hawaii, Vermont, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, and South Dakota round out the top 10.
While much has been made of the connection between rising suicide and the economic crisis, many, if not most, of the states on this list have had relatively stable economies over the course of the crisis and recovery. The Dakotas have been held out as examples of economic stability and growth throughout the crisis. Indiana is the only Rust Belt state to make the top 10 list — Michigan and other hard-hit industrial states are curiously absent. None of the Sun Belt states that were devastated by the housing crisis — Arizona, Florida, or Nevada — are among the top 10 either. Also curiously absent are high-priced, allegedly high-stress East and West Coast states such as New York or California, while more "laid back" states — Hawaii, Vermont, Oregon, and Idaho as well as Plains states — dominate the top 10 for highest increases in suicide rates.
While the economic crisis has clearly been a contributing factor to America's rising suicide rate, perhaps it is not the only, or even the most important factor, behind the surge. In fact, another key factor appears to be at play: guns. Guns are the leading cause of suicide by far, according to the CDC report, accounting for nearly half (48 percent) all suicides among adults ages 35 to 64 in 2010. Slightly less than a quarter of suicides of people in this age group are caused by suffocation, and another 22 percent are poisonings, mainly drug overdoses.
Gun ownership rates, as well as gun control measures, vary substantially by state. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, over 60 percent of all firearm deaths in 2010 were suicides. (While nationwide gun homicide rates were nearly halved between 1993 to 2010, gun suicides have seen a far smaller rate of decrease, declining from a high of 7.6 per 100,000 people in 1990 to 5.7 in 2006, before bouncing back up to 6.3 in 2010). The close connection between gun ownership and suicide has indeed been documented in several detailed state-level studies. A Harvard School of Public Health study found gun ownership to be the overriding factor in accounting for state-by-state differences in suicide after controlling for mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and other factors. A website for a Harvard suicide-prevention campaign explains: "The higher suicide rates result from higher firearm suicides; the non-firearm suicide rate is about equal across states." The Harvard School of Public Health News, which summarized the main findings of the study, notes that "in states where guns were prevalent—as in Wyoming, where 63 percent of households reported owning guns—rates of suicide were higher. The inverse was also true: where gun ownership was less common, suicide rates were also lower."