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What’s causing a rising rate of suicide?

The national suicide rate has hit its highest point since 1986, according to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control. Among middle-aged Americans, the gender gap narrowed between men and women who took their own lives. For 10 to 14-year-old girls, the rate has tripled in the past 15 years. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Katherine Hempstead of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The government released new statistics about suicide in the U.S., and the results were sobering and stunning. The nation's suicide rate is at its highest point since 1986. Nearly 43,000 people ended their own lives in 2014, which is the most recent year with full data.

    Hari Sreenivasan has more on this story from our New York studios.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The rise in rates were particularly alarming among some age groups. While the numbers are still smaller among children, the suicide rate was up sharply among 10-to-14-year-old girls, tripling in the past 15 years.

    It also rose steeply among middle-aged Americans, 63 percent higher for middle-aged women, 43 percent higher for middle-aged men.

    For some perspective on these trends and some of the potential reasons behind it, I'm joined by Katherine Hempstead, who studies this for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

    For the record, the foundation is a funder of the NewsHour.

    So, which of these sets of numbers, and we just went over a couple of them, but stood out to you when you saw this?

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:

    Well, I think there has been concern about the middle-aged group for a while now.

    And people have been noticing increased rates for both males and females. And with these latest results, we see really, really large increases for women in particular and a closing of that gender gap, as the female rates starts to be closer to the male rate.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    That women try more, but men succeed more? Is that one of the…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Well, I think that's something that is true.

    There is much more of a nonfatal to fatal ratio for females. There are many more attempted self-harms that don't result in fatal incidents. But now we see — with this new trend, we see the rates getting closer, and we also see a change in the method, so that we see this increasing adoption of suffocation or hanging as a suicide method by both males and females, and that is a highly lethal method.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And compare that to guns, which is probably still the number one…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Guns is the most lethal means of suicide.

    And guns is the most important method for males. But we saw for both males and females an increase in suffocation as a share of suicides.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    One of the things to keep in mind that, are suicides unreported, because it looks like these CDC numbers would have to come with the coroner's said suicide on the death certificate?

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    There is probably some underreporting of suicides, but I think that, over this time period, I don't believe this is any kind of a data artifact.

    I don't think that underreporting has been a huge part of the problem or that's changed a lot over the last 15 years, so I think this is a real trend in suicide.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And is there any way to capture, well, unsuccessful suicides, attempts or hospitalizations?

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Oh, yes.

    When people attempt suicide, many times, it results in an emergency room admission, so we do have a lot of data on nonfatal attempts. A lot of those attempts are done with poisoning. That's probably the most common method for nonfatal attempts.

    And we do find that females vs. males, as we already mentioned, have a higher ratio of non-fatal to fatal attempts, because they tend to use less lethal methods. And we also see, for certain age groups, like younger groups in particular, there's more nonfatal attempts.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Is that because younger people are doing this more impulsively than older people?

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Well, there is — yes, there is a lot of evidence that, among younger people, suicidal behavior, whether it's fatal or nonfatal, has a more impulsive origination.

    So, it could be a response — and this is I think something that is true especially for young males — response to some kind of adverse event, maybe a relationship problem, a fight with an authority figure, problem with parents, maybe a minor legal infraction. So we see a lot of suicides — suicide attempts and completed suicides for younger people that — especially males, that are the result of sort of recent crises that sort of precipitate impulsive self-injury.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are there large-scale patterns that you can say are maybe attributed to the economy or the great recession that we just went through, or when people are down in the dumps, they have lost their fortunes, they have lost everything? Are these the times where we see suicides pick up?

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Well, that's really the thing that we focused on when we looked at the middle-aged. And we did look to see, could we associate any particular kind of circumstances to this rising rate of suicide among the middle-aged?

    And sure enough we did see an increasing reference to things like job problems, personal finance issues, foreclosures, bankruptcies, things that really accelerated during this time of the recession, but we see that those trends are kind of persisting even when a lot of people feel like the economy's recovered quite a bit, but maybe those improvements aren't being felt by everybody.

    And the middle-aged, I think, are particularly vulnerable to those kinds of pressures, because they are breadwinners, they have dependents, their own retirement might not be secure, they might have children to put through college. So I think they can be particularly affected by those kinds of economic problems.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Are there reasons that explain what is happening with younger people, teenagers? I know there are small cohorts from 13 to 18 and so forth, the way that the CDC breaks out the numbers, but when you look at overall number, it's increasing.

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Well, that's particularly troubling, because it's a little bit harder to pin those kinds of increases to the broader kinds of economic, you know, pocketbook issues that are more — you would think have more of an impact on older people that had those kinds of responsibilities.

    So, I think that is something that people are very concerned about and want to understand better, what are those motivations?

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And is there a contagion effect?

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    You know, some people have talked about that.

    You know, I think that is extremely difficult to have really rigorous evidence to either support or refute the idea of some kind of contagion, particularly to say that that would account for a large share of suicide, but I do think that there are sort of waxes and wanes and times in which suicide may come to seem more sort of culturally acceptable or a more popular way to talk about a response to problems.

    And this can sort of kind of rise and fall over time and go in and out of favor with certain groups. And I think adolescents can be susceptible to that kind of language and imagery.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Katherine Hempstead from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, thanks so much.

  • KATHERINE HEMPSTEAD:

    Sure. It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

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