The nation’s rising rate of suicide, the highest since 1986, corresponds to a shape-shifting economy that is in the final stage of its mutation from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy, in which living standards are declining and employees work harder for less pay.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA — As the Maryland lawyer remembers it, the call came from his mother a few years back. After a few financial setbacks, the lawyer’s younger, adult brother had moved back in with his mother but he hadn’t been himself of late. He slept away much of the day, and when he was awake, he was unusually lethargic and sullen, refusing to eat or shower most days.
The lawyer buzzed over and found his brother in the basement. He was unresponsive, semi-conscious and fully naked, and sweating profusely although his skin felt cold to the touch. In the corner of the darkened basement, the lawyer spied a bottle of car antifreeze, and when he walked over to pick it up, was horrified by his discovery:
It was empty.
The lawyer, who did not want his name used, wrapped his brother in a blanket, bundled him into his car, and sped off to the nearest hospital. After what seemed an eternity, the emergency room physician surfaced from his examination, and with a shrug of his shoulder, proclaimed:
It could go either way.”
The lawyer’s brother, thankfully, survived but his failure represents the proverbial exception that proves the rule. Americans today are killing themselves as though it is going out of style.
Suicide in the United States has surged to its highest levels since 1986, according to a report published this month by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), coinciding with the high-profile suicides of the fashion designer Kate Spade and the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain. The federal agency found increases in virtually every state, with more than half the states reporting an increase of more than 30 percent between 1999 and 2016. Perhaps more disturbingly, the data analysis identified a sharp increase in suicides for every age group except older adults.
The rise was particularly steep for women and the middle-aged, whose suicide rates had been stable or falling since the 1950s. In total, nearly 43,000 Americans died by suicide in 2016, making it the 10th leading cause of death among all Americans; and among youth and young adults, suicide is now the third leading cause of death. Along with drug overdoses and Alzheimer’s, suicide is one of the fastest growing causes of death in the U.S.
Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s principal deputy director, told reporters in a conference call:
These findings are disturbing. Suicide is a public-health problem that can be prevented.”
So what accounts for Americans’ growing despair and insurmountable bouts of melancholy (derived from the Latin words for “black” and “bile.”)?
To quote former President Bill Clinton’s glib campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
The nation’s rising rate of suicide corresponds to a shape-shifting economy that is in the final stage of its mutation from an industrial economy to a post-industrial economy, in which living standards are declining and employees work harder for less pay. Eight in 10 U.S. adults reported feeling stressed during their workday in 2017, and 44 percent reported that their stress levels had increased over the past five years. Most people state their stress is due to concerns about the future, money, work, the political climate, and violence and crime.
Unsuccessfully pursuing happiness
The result? Only one in three Americans are happy.
In 2015, researchers at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found a strong correlation between suicide and worsening financial circumstances or on-the-job stresses. And Monica H. Swahn, a professor of epidemiology and public health at Georgia State University, wrote in The Conversation last week:
This is happening as U.S. performance on a range of health and social measures has been deteriorating, which has led some to compare America to a developing country. Most other developed countries score better than we do on a range of quality of life indices and markers of health and longevity, including life expectancy, working conditions, mothers’ well-being, school performance, crime rates and violent death rates, to mention a few.”
Another feature of the shift from Keynesian redistributive macroeconomic policies – introduced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal – to the neoliberal policies imposed most vigorously by the Reagan administration is austerity, which shrinks the government’s role in providing public services such as healthcare and mental health counseling. Nearly half, or 46 percent, of the people who died by their own hands were known to have a mental-health condition. Of that group, 84 percent were male and 55 percent of the deaths involved a firearm.
But austerity has left mental-health and substance-abuse treatment difficult to access. As one example, while the Maryland lawyer’s brother has not made any subsequent attempts to take his own life, he has struggled to access the best mental health services that showed the most positive outcomes.
Read more by Jon Jeter
- Trump’s “Beautiful” Employment Numbers Mask an Ugly Reality for US Workers
- White Farms and Black Farms: Will South African Land Finally Shed Apartheid’s Proportions?
- Racist Roseanne Was Way Off: Valerie Jarrett Hailed from Planet of the Rich
- Pleasing Investors at the Expense of the People, Argentina Sells out to the IMF
In a public awareness campaign about rising suicide rates, the CDC asserts that the increase is “more than a mental-health concern” and extends to social factors beyond access to care.
One such variable is substance abuse. The CDC study found that among those suicide victims who were screened for drugs, nearly 80 percent had one or more substances in their system, with “despair” drugs — alcohol, opioids, benzodiazepines, cocaine, amphetamines, marijuana and antidepressants — being the most common. Moreover, a separate report by Carsey Research, concluded that “the mortality rate from drug poisoning, alcohol poisoning, and suicide increased by 52 percent between 2000 and 2014.”
Overall, the national suicide rate increased by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, raising the suicide rate in the U.S. to 13 per 100,000 people. The suicide rate for middle-aged women, ages 45 to 64, jumped by a staggering 63 percent over the period of the study, while increasing by 43 percent for men in that age range, the sharpest increase for males in any age group.
Already high, Native Americans recorded the sharpest increase of any racial or ethnic group, with rates rising by 89 percent for women and 38 percent for men. And while the aggregate numbers remained small, researchers also found an alarming increase among girls 10 to 14, whose suicide rate tripled from 50 in 1999 to 150 in 2014.
Black men are the only racial group to record a decline over the study period, and men and women over the age of 75 are the only age group to see a drop in the suicide rate.
Said the Maryland lawyer recently:
This nation, just like my brother, is really experiencing a great deal of pain.”
Top Photo | Food writer Hadley Tomicki, of Los Angeles, is accompanied by his daughter Kira, 1, as he takes a picture of a new mural of the late chef/writer/television personality Anthony Bourdain, created by artist Jonas Never, June 18, 2018, on a side wall of the new restaurant Gramercy in Santa Monica, Calif. Bourdain died Friday, June 8, in France in an apparent suicide. Chris Pizzello | Invision | AP
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”