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What Everyone Needs to Know About the Rising U.S. Suicide Rates

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Photo: Shutterstock/newyear 

Last week, the news of the deaths of two prominent—and beloved—cultural figures shook the nation.

First, Kate Spade, 55, the founder of her eponymous fashion brand known for its bright and cheery aesthetics, took her own life. Then, Anthony Bourdain, 61, the famed chef, writer, and bon vivant, died by suicide while filming his CNN travel show, Parts Unknown, in France.

For two people who seemed so full of life, their deaths are disquieting.

Adding to the unease are new findings that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the same week. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S., and the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24, according to the CDC. Worse, the numbers are climbing. Suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016, while 25 states experienced an increase in suicides of more than 30 percent.

And while men account for a majority of suicides in this country, that gender gap is narrowing, as the number of women taking their own lives rises. The suicide rate among boys and men increased by 21 percent, but by 50 percent for girls and women from 2000 to 2016, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. (Related: I'm Done Keeping Quiet About Suicide)

Here, experts share insight on this public health issue, including what can be done to help combat these alarming statistics.

Suicide and Mental Illness

Simply put, the distressing numbers cannot be attributed to one factor alone. There's a mix of socioeconomic and sociocultural trends that may play a role in the rising rates, says Susan McClanahan, Ph.D., chief clinical officer at the Insight Behavioral Health Centers.

One major risk factor that many suicides have in common, though, is the existence of clinical depression or major depressive disorder, says Lena Franklin, LCSW, a mindful psychotherapist in Atlanta. "When worthlessness, hopelessness, and pervasive sadness exist, a person's meaning for living plummets, increasing their risk of suicide."

Other mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, and substance use disorders, as well as various personality disorders (particularly borderline personality disorder) can also impact suicidal ideation and intent, McClanahan notes.

Unfortunately, too many people struggling with mental health issues don't get the help they need—or even know that they have a mental health condition. The CDC report found that more than half of people (54 percent) who died by suicide did not have a known (in this case, diagnosed) mental health condition. That's why suicide often comes as a shock to family and friends. That can be partially attributed to the stigma associated with mental illness, which can dissuade many people from getting the help they need, says McClanahan.

"It could be a combination of stigma and a lack of education," adds Joy Harden Bradford, Ph.D., a psychologist and founder of Therapy for Black Girls. "Sometimes people have dealt with so much stuff in their lives that they don't even realize how much pain they're in or how it's actually impacting their daily functioning."

One thing is certain, though. No one is immune to mental illness or suicidal thoughts and actions, as Bourdain's and Spade's deaths illustrate. While we don't know exactly what triggered their suicides, their deaths are proof that achieving financial success or fame does not prevent unhappiness, nor does it mean someone with the means will seek the professional help they need. "Income level is not a protective factor against suicide," Bradford points out. (Related: Olivia Munn Just Posted a Powerful Message About Suicide On Instagram

But it can't be denied that for many other people struggling across the country, cost could be a factor standing in their way. This is due in part to a loss of government funding for mental health resources over the last 10 years, says McClanahan. Since the 2008 recession, states have cut $4 billion in funding toward these services. "Research has shown that treatment helps people with psychiatric issues, but we can't help people if they can't get treatment," she says.

The Technology Factor

Another contributing cause might be the mere demands of our lives today, says Franklin. As you might guess, waking up and checking email, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat—over and over again—isn't exactly doing wonders for your mental health.

"Our western culture places a huge amount of reliance on technology and hyperconnectivity, which inevitably leads to unprecedented levels of depression and anxiety," says Franklin. "Our physiological systems simply aren't wired to experience the amount of work and life demands we expect from our minds and bodies daily."

Social media can be a double-edged sword, says Ashley Hampton, Ph.D., a psychologist and business coach. While it allows you to connect with others, these virtual connections are often superficial and don't give you the same oxytocin-induced warm and fuzzy feelings of actual human interaction.

Seeing only what is shown to you—in other words, the "highlight reel"—can make you feel bummed out about your own life, adds Hampton. And the "hookup culture" perpetuated by dating apps doesn't exactly help you feel valued either, as they tend to portray people as replaceable with just another swipe, notes McClanahan.

Finally, the constant comparison that social media invites you to make leads to a risk of low self-esteem and depressive symptoms. Franklin sees this frequently in her mindfulness-based psychotherapy practice. "I see teens who fall into a depressive state when they don't receive as many 'likes' on average on their Instagram photos as their close peers," she says. And this sense of low self-worth can lead to depression, which can increase the risk of suicide."

A Multitude of Other Factors

However, it's important to note "there are a lot of confounding factors that contribute to someone's decision to commit suicide that we know from those that do not complete suicide," says Hampton.

While some research has suggested that as many as 90 percent of people who die by suicide do have a mental illness, the research methods in those studies are likely flawed, says Hampton. There are many risk factors for suicide beyond mental illness.

For example, some suicides might be accidental, says Hampton. "This might happen when one is intoxicated, for example, and plays with a loaded gun or makes other dangerous decisions." Other variables might include traumatic events in someone's life, such as losing a job, foreclosure on a house, the death of a loved one, or a serious medical diagnosis, she says. (Hampton also points to the increase in suicide as a choice when diagnosed with a terminal illness, such as physician-assisted suicide.) 

The overall political climate of the country might also have an effect, says Hampton, as the negativity can feel overwhelming to people who are already experiencing difficulties, or mental illness.

Trigger Warning: The Contagious Aspect of Suicide

When a public figure takes his or her own life, there is a risk of so-called "copycat suicides" or "suicide contagion" following excessive media coverage. This idea is supported by anecdotal evidence as well as a number of research studies, says Hampton. There's evidence this is happening right now: Suicide hotline calls rose 65 percent after the deaths of Spade and Bourdain. 

This phenomenon is known as the Werther effect, which is named after the hero in a 1774 novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The story follows a young man who commits suicide as the result of unrequited love. After the book was published, there was reportedly an increase in suicides among young men.

The likelihood of copycat suicides is increased by news coverage that "glamorizes" the death, includes dramatic or graphic details, and/or continues for a prolonged period of time, notes Hampton. This is at the root of the furor surrounding the Netflix show 13 Reasons Why, which some critics have demanded to be canceled. (Related: Experts Speak Out Against "13 Reasons Why" In the Name of Suicide Prevention

How to Take Action

It seems like an overwhelming issue to tackle. But armed with the knowledge of the signs of suicide, how to respond, and where to access help—whether you are feeling low or know someone who is—everyone can help and get help.

So, what should you look out for? The warning signs of suicide can vary, says Hampton. Some people may feel depressed with overwhelming feelings of sadness, problems sleeping, feelings of guilt and hopelessness, and/or withdraw from others.

According to the CDC, these are the 12 signs that someone may be contemplating suicide:

  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being isolated
  • Increased anxiety
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance use
  • Looking for a way to access lethal means
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Talking or posting about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide

If you feel like someone may be at risk for suicide, follow these five steps, outlined by the suicide prevention campaign #BeThe1To:

  1. Ask questions. Questions such as "Are you thinking about suicide?" or "How can I help?" communicates that you're open to talking about it. Be sure to ask in a nonjudgmental way, and in return, listen. Try to listen to not only their reasons for thinking about taking their lives, but also listen for reasons to stay alive that you can highlight.
  2. Keep them safe. Next, figure out if they've taken any steps toward killing themselves. Do they have a specific plan? Have any steps been put into action? If they have access to things like a firearm or pills, then call the authorities or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, listed below.
  3. Be there. Whether you can be physically present with someone or stay with them on the phone, staying with them can literally save someone's life. Research shows that a sense of "connectedness" with other people helps prevent suicidal behavior, while a sense of "low-belongingness" or social alienation is a factor in contemplating suicide.
  4. Help them connect. Next, help them find others who can support them in times of crisis, so they can establish a "safety net" around them. This might include therapists, family members, or other sources of support within their communities.
  5. Follow up. Whether it's a voicemail, text, call, or a visit, follow up to let that person know you care about how they're doing, continuing their sense of "connectedness."

To take care of your own mental health, Franklin suggests practicing self-care—and not just the bubble-bath-and-facemask kind.

  • Go to see a therapist for an emotional "tune up" on a consistent basis. (Here's how to make therapy work on a budget, and how to find the best therapist for you.) 
  • Cultivate a loving, supportive network of friends and family that you can rely on when life gets chaotic and painful.
  • Practice yoga and meditation. "Studies show that these mind-body practices decrease depressive symptoms by changing our relationship with negative thought patterns and shifting our physiology," she says. (Here's when exercise helps—and when you should take treatment a step further.) 
  • Acknowledge life's struggles. "As a society, we must acknowledge the inherent pain and suffering of life in order to prevent attachment to perfection," says Franklin. "Embracing life's struggle honors its rich complexity rather than perpetuating depression and anxiety rooted in cultural norms of being overworked."

If you're struggling with thoughts of suicide or have felt deeply distressed for a period of time, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with someone who will provide free and confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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