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Rising U.S. Suicide Rate Demands Profound National Change

by Nancy Spannaus

June 13, 2018—The June 8, 2018 Vital Signs Report from the Centers for Disease Control provides a gruesome context for the latest headline suicides of celebrities Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Suicide rates are on the rise among all sections of the U.S. population except those over 75, and have gone up by more than 25% since 1999. In half the states of the Union, they have risen by more than 30%.

Rising U.S. Suicide Rate Demands Profound National Change

CDC chart on suicide rates. The higher the rate, the darker the blue.

In other words, the suicide “epidemic,” which claims 123 lives a day, now rivals the opioid crisis, which claims between 115 and 140 lives a day. Intentional self-inflicted death is now the 10th leading cause of death overall, but the second highest cause among Americans 10 to 34 years old. The young are increasingly at risk.

The medical community has rushed to address the crisis with demands for more mental health services, which in many cases have proven effective, and clearly should be provided. But we can’t avoid the question: Why has our mental health declined? What is driving so many people to take their own lives? Why is the rate rising, including the rate of those known (by emergency room visits) to have unsuccessfully attempted to commit suicide?

On the one hand, there would seem to be a correlation between this phenomenon and the declining economic prospects for large sections of the U.S. population. Historically, suicide rates have gone up in depressions; indeed, the rate in 1932, near the height of the Great Depression, was 70% higher than today. The 2017 Brookings study identifying the rise of death rates from drugs, alcohol, and suicides as “deaths of despair,” provided substantial evidence of a correlation between this rise and the devastation of communities which have been deindustrialized.

However, as the suicides of the highly celebrated and economically successful Spade and Bourdain underline, mere economic hardship does not represent a linear cause. As shown in recent studies of declining life-expectancy among white non-Hispanics, it is notable that, by contrast, the generally poorer sections of the population (such as African-Americans) are not undergoing the same trend.

Rising U.S. Suicide Rate Demands Profound National Change

This rise in mortality, documented by Brookings scholars in 2017, highlights the severity of the healthcare crisis.

As we have pointed out before, the United States is facing a cultural crisis, a profound up-ending of its traditional expectation of continual economic and social progress. Even where individuals may have a chance to “make it,” they face a society in which the sense of common moral purpose has seemingly disappeared. The noble purposes for which Americans sacrificed, and to which they gladly gave their energies in years past—from fighting just wars to the conquering of space, polio, and even poverty (no matter how aborted these efforts might have been)—are nowhere in sight. Nor are the leaders who would both inspire and challenge the population to take on such objectives with urgency.

It would be too simple to say this crisis can be solved simply by an “economic program,” although the return to principles of economic progress will demand specific measures of the American System which this blog has espoused. Look instead to the leadership of a Washington, a Lincoln, or an FDR as they addressed the populations of their day, and worked to uplift their sights to build a better future. Look to raise the self-conception of all Americans to that of citizen of a republic, committed to “provide the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Raise the level of optimism by involving people of all ages in rebuilding our nation, giving all of us a reason to live.

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