SUICIDI IN USA. An awful hole, THE ECONOMIST, 31 gennaio 2015
BEING depressed is like having a terrible headache, says one Atlanta businessman. Except that a few days of rest do not stop the pain: “You’re just expected to keep going.” Trying to “man up”, he sought little help for his condition, choosing to hide it instead. “It all gets so debilitating that you don’t want to go on,” he explains.
He tried to kill himself more than once; fortunately, his attempts came to nothing. But the same cannot be said for a growing share of Americans. The suicide rate has risen from 11 per 100,000 people in 2005 to 13 seven years later. In the time it takes you to read this article, six Americans will try to kill themselves; in another ten minutes one will succeed.
Over 40,000 Americans took their own lives in 2012—more than died in car crashes—says the American Association of Suicidology. Mondays in May see the most incidents. The rates are highest in Wyoming and Montana, perhaps because guns—which are more effective than pills—are so common there (see chart). Nationally, guns are used in half of all successful suicides.
What drives people to self-destruction? Those who suffer
from depression are, unsurprisingly, most at risk. The suicide rate also rises when times are hard. During the Depression it jumped to a record 19 per 100,000. It grew after the recent financial crisis too. “Even just uncertainty over employment” makes people worry a lot, notes Yeats Conwell, a psychiatrist at the University of Rochester Medical Centre.
The over-75s have historically been most likely to kill themselves, especially if they are lonely or ill. But now it is the middle-aged who are most at risk. In 2012 the suicide rate for Americans aged 45-54 was 20 per 100,000—the highest rate of any age group. For those aged 55-64 it was 18; for the over-65s it was 15. The middle years can be stressful, because that is when people realise that their youthful ambitions will never be fulfilled.
Women make nearly four times as many suicide attempts as men, but men succeed four times as often. Men favour bloodier methods: most use a gun, whereas less than a third of women do. Women may be better at asking for help; overall, they are two and a half times more likely than men to take anti-depressants. Whites are nearly three times as likely as African-Americans to kill themselves. Blacks are five times more likely to be murdered with a gun than to kill themselves with one; for whites it is the other way round.
Military veterans are especially prone to suicide. Data from 48 states suggest that 30 out of 100,000 veterans kill themselves each year—a rate far higher than among civilians. Many find it hard to overcome the trauma of combat, or to adjust to civilian life. A survey by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group, found that 31% of veterans had considered taking their own lives. Congress is mulling a bill to overhaul how the Department of Veterans Affairs handles the problem.
Activists say the government does too little to prevent suicide. Christine Moutier of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention complains that only $40m of federal funding will go to anti-suicide programmes this year. This does not include the billions the government spends on mental-health problems more broadly.
Some treatments, such as anti-depressants, are often quite effective. More than 20 studies have found that when anti-depressants are more widely available, fewer people end their own lives. For example, between 1991 and 1996 Swedes swallowed 240% more anti-depressants and the suicide rate fell 19%. But it is hard to prove a causal link. And other studies suggest that certain anti-depressants lead young people to think more about suicide.
Making it slightly harder to kill yourself is also surprisingly effective. American pharmacists still sell painkillers loose in pots, enabling people to pour the whole lot down their throats in one movement. This is unwise. After Britain switched to blister packs in 1998, which require you to punch pills out one by one, deaths from overdoses of paracetamol (the active ingredient in Tylenol) dropped 44% in 11 years.
Some who ponder suicide may be dissuaded by counselling. Behavioural therapies, alone or in family settings, allow sufferers to talk through their emotions and actions. A Danish study of 65,000 people who attempted suicide between 1992 and 2010 suggests that providing people with “a safe, confidential place to talk” during up to ten sessions saw repeat attempts and actual suicides drop more than 25%.
Three states have concluded that not all suicides should be prevented. In Oregon, Washington and Vermont “Death with Dignity” laws allow terminally ill, mentally competent residents to ask for prescription drugs to hasten their deaths. Such laws have no discernible effect on unassisted suicide: from 1999 to 2010 suicides among those aged 35-64 increased 49% in Oregon, which has allowed terminally ill patients to end their lives since 1997, compared with a 28% increase nationally.
And what of those left behind? A suicide deeply affects six people close to the deceased, research suggests. Since 1988 some 5m Americans have suffered the loss of a loved one in this way. Christy Simpson, a counsellor in Georgia, knows it can be difficult for families to discuss a loved one’s suicide; her mother asked her to tell friends that her sister died in a car accident after she jumped to her death.
Ms Simpson believes that eroding the stigma around suicide would help. “My parents could never talk about [it]. My mother went from perfect health to her grave within seven years,” she says. “The message I got was that what had happened was extremely shameful and that we had failed as a family.”