Every year the Center for Disease Control (CDC) releases the latest statistics on the national suicide rates. Due to the amount of information gathered and analyzed, the rates are generally about two years behind. Earlier this month the CDC released the stats from 2016.
Since 2015, the United States has seen a 1.8 percent increase in suicide and it remains the 10th overall leading cause of death. In 2015, there were 44,193 suicide deaths and in 2016 there were 44,965, which is an increase of 772 (1).
“We are disheartened because every suicide is a tragedy and the suicide rate in the U.S. has been steadily increasing for years,” says Dr. Christine Moutier, the Chief Medical Officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “The more the public understands about suicide prevention, the more likely we’ll see the rate of suicide begin to decrease. Creating a culture open to talking about mental health and suicide prevention is critical. Making treatment truly accessible for all people is paramount.”
In 2016, The Metro Area LOSS Team received 68 suicide notifications from Omaha Police Department and Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office alone. This number, however, does not include suicide deaths that occurred in the surrounding metro areas patrolled by other law enforcement agencies and/or possible suicide deaths that were misclassified as an “accidental death” or “death unknown.” Of the 68 notifications, 11 victims were female, 57 were male, with ages ranging from 14 to 86 years old. According to the CDC, firearms account for 51 percent of all suicides in the US, which holds true in our local data as well (2). In addition to firearm suicides, locally we have seen an increase in suicide by asphyxiation since 2015.
In 2017, our team began working with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office in addition to OPD and Sarpy County. Last year the LOSS Team was notified of 96 suicides. Again, these do not include suicide deaths that occurred in the surrounding metro areas patrolled by other law enforcement agencies and/or possible suicide deaths that were misclassified.
While the overall rate of suicide for Caucasian people slightly decreased in 2016, they still have the highest rate of suicide in the U.S. compared to any other race. The highest risk demographic continues to be white middle aged men, with white males accounting for seven out of ten suicides in 2016. Why is this you may ask?
Dr. Thomas Joiner offers some possible theories as to why this group may be at an increased risk in his book, “Why People Die By Suicide.” Throughout his book, he talks about several factors that can lead people down the path to suicide, which include an acquired ability for self-injury, impulsivity, genetics, mental illness, thwarted feelings of belonging, and a sense of burdensomeness. When speaking about white middle aged men in particular, he focuses on the idea of thwarted feelings of belonging (3).
“One factor at play, I believe, is the tendency for this group in particular not to replenish their social connectedness as they age,” Dr. Joiner explained. “U.S. men in general, and white men in particular, seem to form some close relationships in childhood and late adolescents, but the forming of close relationships in adulthood is relatively rare. This is less the case for other groups (e.g., women in general; non-white men) (3).”
Dr. Joiner shares his own thoughts of his father’s suicide in 1990. In the months leading up to his death, his father left his long-time career after being betrayed by co-workers he thought were his friends, experienced struggles within his marriage, and also left his regular church and began attending a Baptist church. While he was welcomed in to the congregation with open arms and regularly attended social events in addition to services, he still felt like an outsider. After losing these critical relationships, Dr. Joiner believes that his dad never found the human connection and sense of belonging that he was in such desperate search of finding.
“My dad’s desire for death, I believe, developed in the context of losing touch with his professional identity, his marriage, and his church,” said Joiner. “He tried to compensate, for example, by visiting African American churches, but his efforts were not sufficient. What he needed was to form new and deep friendships and to suffer the pain of rebuilding his professional identity. These things were beyond him, as they are any men, particularly white men in their fifties and older. I believe this is the main reason this demographic is at highest risk for death by suicide.”
We know that the key to prevention is educating people to know the warning signs, risk factors, protective factors, and knowing how to ask the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?,” in a supportive and non-judgmental way. But is this enough? Are we stressing the importance of protective factors, particularly connection?
The need to belong and feel connected to others is a fundamental human need that as a society we are losing sight of. We are in a generation of emails, text messages, Tweets and Snapchats. While social media and smart phones claim to “connect” you with anyone, anywhere, we are actually becoming more and more disengaged and disconnected to one another.
An article from The Atlantic entitled “Has the Smart Phone Destroyed a Generation?” talks about this very concept and the effects screen time has particularly in our youth. They reported that eight-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 percent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly. Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 percent more likely to have risk factors for suicide, and in 2011 for first time in 24 years the teen suicide rate was higher than the teen homicide rate. While youth are physically safer than years past, they are psychologically more vulnerable with rates of depression and suicide higher than ever (5).
Researcher and article author, Jean Twenge, has studied generational differences for 25 years. In a recent study, she focused on college students with a Facebook page and asked them to complete short surveys on their phone over the course of two weeks. They’d get a text message with a link five times a day and report on their mood and how much they’d used Facebook. She found that the more they’d used Facebook, the unhappier they felt, but feeling unhappy did not lead to less Facebook use.
“Social-networking sites like Facebook promise to connect us to friends. But the portrait of iGen teens emerging from the data is one of a lonely, dislocated generation,” said Twenge. “ Teens who visit social-networking sites every day, but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.” Teens’ feelings of loneliness spiked in 2013 and have remained high since (5).”
Relationships developed and maintained solely through social media and other electronic avenues do not replace the need for deep personal connection. No matter your age, race, or gender having supportive, positive, and personal relationships throughout your life play a vital role in protecting yourself and loved ones from suicide.
- “Why People Die By Suicide,” Dr. Thomas Joiner
Jill Hamilton, Senior Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been a Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Speech Communication Minor from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition and The Metro Area Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, is Chair of the Nebraska LOSS Teams Conference Planning Committee, and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.