Where suicide is easy, it grows more frequent

By Tom Baxter

Suicide might be the last thing we’d think of as a social act, but Emile Durkheim’s 1897 study of that subject is one of the pillars on which all the social research of today rests.

Looking at suicides in aggregate rather than individually, Durkheim established that men killed themselves with greater frequency than women, Protestants more than Catholics, single more than married, childless more than those with children. This information, which had never before been gathered in a scientific way, led Durkheim to propose that the degree to which people felt integrated into a social system was strongly related to the likelihood of suicide.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report which is a direct descendant of Durkheim’s research. What it revealed speaks directly to the social turbulence which has roiled the country in so many ways.

“While we’ve seen many causes of death come down in recent years, suicide rates have increased more than 20 percent from 2001 to 2015. And this is especially concerning in rural areas,” the CDC’s new director, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald said.

After dropping by 14 percent during the 1990s, suicide rates have risen across the board during this century, with stark differences by gender, age and place of residence. For women living in large metropolitan areas, the rate for the years 2001-2015 was 5.20 per 100,000. For men living in rural areas not connected to any small towns, the rate was 28.54 per 100,000, and this rate is rising sharply. For the 2013-2015 period, the rate was 31.62. The Great Recession caused suicide rates to rise, but not evenly. Blacks in rural areas have suffered economically, but they killed themselves at only a fractionally higher rate after the recession than before, and at less than a third the rate of whites in rural areas.

This century’s trends in suicide track closely with the political narrative of disaffected, small town-rural white voters, grown increasingly desperate to see some change in their prospects. The map of the opioid epidemic also fits into the overlay. Durkheim’s idea that a sense of disconnection from society leads to suicide seems to fit.

We have to be careful not to read more into the numbers than what there really is, however. Whites in rural areas, and white people generally, were killing themselves at rates exceeded only by Native Americans when the century began. And while the suicide and opioid maps coincide, there has been no dramatic rise in suicides by drug overdose.

One thing we know about suicide is that it takes some doing. About 12 people are treated in hospitals for every reported suicide,  and this can be only a portion of those who have attempted suicide or been close to doing so.

It follows that what makes suicide easier and more spontaneous will lead to more suicides. Nearly half of all suicides in this country are committed with firearms, and people in the rural areas which have seen the most alarming increase in suicides are twice as likely as other Americans to kill themselves with a gun. Opioids, economic turmoil and social disruption have all been factors in the increasing suicide rate, but it can be no accident that suicides have increased most dramatically where suicide is easiest.

More than six of every ten people killed with a gun in the United States is a suicide, and yet this has been the most quiet corner of the gun debate. It gets to troubling realities for both sides on this rancorous debate.

Advocates of gun control can’t say much about it unless they want to take on the Second Amendment directly. It doesn’t take a semi-automatic weapon or a bump stock to kill yourself in the way the vast majority of gun suicides do. Opponents of gun control avoid the subject because the areas where they are politically strongest are those where the rate of gun-related suicides is highest.

On average, there are more than 121 suicides per day in the United States. That is to say, more than twice as many people committed suicide the day after the Las Vegas shooting as Stephen Paddock killed before he killed himself, or roughly the same number if you only count those with guns involved.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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