Why Are Suicide Rates Rising? | Alexa Moody

One of my greatest disappointments as the CEO/Founder of a suicide prevention nonprofit is seeing the rates for suicide climbing.

With news breaking of several high-profile suicides this week, including Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, not to mention the devastating losses of celebrities in recent years such as Chester Bennington, Robin Williams, Chris Cornell, Verne Troyer, and many others, it is clear that more people are taking their lives today.

The CDC found that between 1999 and 2014:

  • The age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 population, with the pace of increase greater after 2006.
  • Suicide rates increased from 1999 through 2014 for both males and females and for all ages 10–74.
  • The percent increase in suicide rates for females was greatest for those aged 10–14, and for males, those aged 45–64.
  • The most frequent suicide method in 2014 for males involved the use of firearms (55.4%), while poisoning was the most frequent method for females (34.1%).

Additionally, the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey has just been released, showing:

  • 17% of students have considered suicide at some point in the past school year
  • 31% of students have had suicidal feelings (up from 28% in 2007)
  • 14% of students have actually made a suicide plan (up from 11% in 2007)

Why?

Why are rates climbing when society today is more open to discussions of mental health and suicide than ever before (although, admittedly, we still have a long way to go)? Why are rates climbing when we’re constantly improving our methodology, making diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses easier and cheaper than in past years? Why are rates climbing when public educational outreach is doing incredible work, with over a million people trained in excellent programs such as Mental Health First Aid or QPR?

I don’t have THE answer, but I think I may have part of the answer. I think in many ways it comes down to a misunderstanding of the source of suicidal thoughts.

I believe most people, and even most literature, focus too much on one dimension of wellness. You see, as humans we are comprised of four dimensions that need to be healthy in order to be truly well:

Biophysical: Your physical body, chemicals in your brain, blood, muscles, flesh, etc.
Psychological: Thoughts, self-esteem, internal monologue, worldview
Social: Your relationships with others, your environment
Spiritual: Personal faith, inspiration, aspiration, where you find beauty in the world

I’ve seen a lot of focus on the biological, as most suicide prevention efforts tend to do. It IS true that suicidal thoughts are often the cause of a mental illness such as depression, anxiety, or an addiction, and antidepressants are one tool in the suicide prevention toolbox that can significantly help. Many people, myself included, are simply born with a chemical imbalance that medication helps to correct. We also hear of the importance of counseling/therapy, which touches on the psychological aspect of recognizing and defeating negative/intrusive thoughts and patterns.

Then, I’ll read articles and opinions talking about our culture, or our social dimension. We live in a society that values wealth and success over interpersonal relationships, and ultimately we find that success does not equal happiness or fulfillment. Not to mention other social factors such as growing up or living in dangerous or abusive environments, living in poverty and uncertainty, being a victim of bullying, or being part of a minority group that faces discrimination. All of this is true as well – our social aspect can absolutely contribute to or cause thoughts of despair and suicide.

Additionally, we must look at our spiritual aspect. I spoke with a friend the other day who, by all accounts, is living a good life. Young, early 20’s, still living with their parents, but they have a great job, amazing friends, a fantastic dog, and is an all-around loved person. But they mentioned that they always had a hard time imagining themselves past the age of 30 — they simply had no vision of a future. And that lack of vision contributed a lot to suicidal thoughts. Thankfully today, they have that vision of a future, so they have something to work towards.

This spiritual aspect is a deeper meaning in life. Some people find that meaning by aspiring to travel the world, or become a famous author, or even being a homemaker or stay-at-home parent. Some people find spiritual meaning in their faith and church communities, some find meaning in volunteering and helping others. A lack of this – an UNHEALTHY spiritual dimension – can also contribute to suicidal thoughts.

It’s all of it.

We must be healthy physically: eating well, exercising, sleeping well, and not be afraid of medical intervention such as antidepressants or even complementary treatments such as herbal/vitamin supplements or ECT. We must recognize that any part of our bodies can get sick, including our brains, and we need to treat mental illnesses the same way we treat physical illnesses.

We must be healthy psychologically: not dwelling on the darkness, having the ability to vent and express negative emotions, having good coping skills, and not be afraid of psychological interventions such as counseling, therapy, mindfulness, breathing exercises, etc. We must recognize that the way we think determines our reality, so taking control of negative and intrusive thoughts is essential to our health and well-being.

We must be healthy socially: living and working in a safe environment free from abuse of any kind, we must have a support system of people we can reach out to in the bad times and the good times, we must have a balance between routine and adventure to keep us secure but also having fun.

We must be healthy spiritually: seeking and finding a deeper meaning to our lives, whether that meaning comes through volunteering, advocating, organized religion, or another source.

If any one of these dimensions are failing, it can lead to severe struggles, which can lead to suicidal thoughts. Suicide is not JUST a biological condition, nor is it JUST a social failing – most often, it’s a combination of struggles in every dimension.

This is really important: what this means is that if you’re struggling, JUST taking medicine may not be enough. JUST going to therapy may not be enough. JUST getting out of your abusive situation may not be enough. JUST praying more, going to church more often, or volunteering more may not be enough. 

If you’re hurting, it is imperative that you seek wellness in every aspect and you don’t put all your hope in one treatment or outcome. It can be frustrating to discover that medicine or therapy isn’t necessarily a cure-all, but they are pieces of a puzzle towards recovery.

Why are suicide rates rising?

My personal belief is that they are rising because of many factors:

  • There is still a fear in seeking help, a fear of being discriminated against due to mental/emotional turmoil
  • There is a lack of access, not everyone can afford treatment, and even the professionals are not always trained appropriately on how to help someone who is struggling mentally/emotionally
  • There is a lack of understanding, many people don’t realize that treatment consists of multiple dimensions of wellness, and many people don’t even know that they are unwell
  • We live in a society that values things over people, and we face deep disappointment even in the face of success
  • Our digital world/media spreads myths, misinformation, and glamorizes emotional wounds

How do we fix it?

  • Mental health problems must be taught in the same way we teach about other health problems
  • We need more access to professionals and treatment, including more psychiatric beds and more education on various types of treatment instead of focusing solely on medicine/therapy
  • Professionals need more training
  • More focus on wellness dimensions, teaching others not only how to stay well physically but also how to stay well psychologically, socially, and spiritually
  • More education on how to stay well in an ever-changing, digitally-centered world
  • More focus on fulfillment through relationships and inner-peace, as opposed to society’s definitions of success and wealth

Of course, as with the rest of the blog, these are all just pieces of the mental wellness puzzle.

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