Seventeen-year-old Nick Bales had many friends, played sports and was making straight A’s in his senior year at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colo. “He seemed to have it all,” said his mother. Then on Sept. 29 he killed himself.
Bales had struggled with depression and anxiety since the sixth grade and had tried various therapies and medications. Outwardly, he showed improvement, and his parents thought he was doing better. But his distress continued.
Three days after Bales took his life, one of his classmates also died by suicide. School administrators canceled classes for the day as the town grieved, and mental health workers rushed to help other students.
“It’s just heartbreaking,” said 18-year-old Joe Roberts, a senior at nearby Heritage High School.
Communities, mental health experts, researchers and lawmakers are scrambling to understand why the U.S. suicide rate has been soaring. In 2017 it reached its highest level since the 1940s — 14 per 100,000 population — according to the latest federal data. After falling to a record low in 2000, the rate has been rising across nearly every state, gender, race and age. The increase has occurred even as the global suicide rate has fallen 38 percent from its peak in 1994 and despite increased research into causes and treatments, expanded prevention efforts and repeated calls for action.
Researchers cite many theories for the rising suicide rate, from mental health problems to the opioid crisis, economic pressures, easy access to guns and increased use of social media by the young. Experts agree that early detection of dangerous psychological distress is key to reducing suicides, but how to do that is difficult.
“This increasing [suicide] rate is really exasperating,” says David Jobes, a psychology professor and the director of the Suicide Prevention Laboratory at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. “Those of us in the field who were encouraged in the 1990s are really discouraged now, because we thought we were making headway.”
The 2017 suicide rate was 33 percent greater than the rate in 1999 and ranked as the 10th leading cause of death. More than 47,000 Americans ages 10 or older died by suicide in 2017, more than twice as many as by homicide. Another 1.4 million attempted suicide, and about 10 million Americans each year report having suicidal thoughts.
The 10 states with the highest suicide rates in 2017 were largely in the rural West, but the rates have risen in nearly every state over the past 20 years. Baby Boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — have had the highest rate of any age group since at least the 1990s, but experts also have been alarmed by rising suicide rates among adolescents and young adults. Suicides among those ages 15 to 24 reached the highest level in 2017 — 14.6 per 100,000 — since the government began collecting data on youth suicide in 1960.
“I don’t think it is an exaggeration … to say that we have a mental health crisis among adolescents in the U.S.,” said San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, who studies generational differences in emotional health.
Middle-aged white men accounted for more than 70 percent of suicides in 2017, and accidental deaths — which many researchers say may include suicides — as well as opioid-related suicides have doubled in the past 17 years.
And certain occupations — such as construction, law enforcement, food preparation, arts and media — report high rates of suicide compared with other jobs. Suicide rates among military veterans are about 150 percent higher than among civilians.
“It’s startling and of tremendous concern that the rates are going up really to such a high rate across the board,” said Dr. Robert Dicker, associate director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York City.
Suicides cost the U.S. economy an estimated $93.5 billion a year, primarily due to lost productivity, according to the most recent data available.1
Experts say more federal spending is needed to better pinpoint risk factors for suicide. “There are very few facts in suicide research,” says Stacey Freedenthal, an associate professor at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work who specializes in suicide prevention. “There’s more hypotheses and theories and correlations.”
“We must mobilize a nationwide public health effort,” said Colleen Creighton, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, an advocacy group in Washington focused on suicide prevention research and training. She called for a “billion-dollar war on suicide.”
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