The American Suicide Epidemic

By Michael Rass

There has been a lot of bad news about suicide lately. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that “suicide rates in the United States have risen nearly 30 percent since 1999,” on the same day that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain died by suicide at the age of 61. His death came just days after fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead of an apparent suicide at age 55.

According to the CDC’s ​Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report​, suicides in America have gone up across all racial and ethnic groups, in both men and women, in both cities and rural areas, and across all age groups below 75. Mental health conditions are one of several factors contributing to suicide although “fifty-four percent of decedents in 27 states in 2015 did not have a known mental health condition.” Problems related to relationships, jobs and finances, substance use, and health are among the other circumstances contributing to suicide.

Bourdain and Spade Suicides Came As A Shock

None of these seemed to have been a factor in Bourdain’s death. His Peabody Award-winning show was in the middle of its 11th season at the time of his death. ​Parts Unknown ​featured the chef traveling the world while offering his perspective on food, culture, and politics. Bourdain was outspoken about social issues and a voice for marginalized groups such as immigrant kitchen workers.

In a 2017 episode of ​Parts Unknown​, he shared a $6 meal with President Obama in Hanoi, Vietnam. "He taught us about food — but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together," Obama tweeted after Bourdain’s death. "To make us a little less afraid of the unknown. We’ll miss him." Rolling Stone Magazine called him “​a titan of popular food culture​.” Sadly, a stellar career and the admiration of millions of fans cannot provide immunity against suicide.

Kate Spade was equally famous. Together with her husband and business partner Andy Spade, she built a billion-dollar brand of luxury handbags and accessories. ​In a statement​ published by the New York Times, Mr. Spade said “Kate suffered from depression and anxiety for many years. She was actively seeking help and working closely with her doctors to treat her disease, one that takes far too many lives. We were in touch with her the night before and she sounded happy. There was no indication and no warning that she would do this. It was a complete shock. And it clearly wasn’t her. There were personal demons she was battling.”

Deaths of Despair

Researchers have been trying to come up with an explanation for the rising suicide rates. In 2015, two Princeton economists argued that middle-aged white Americans without a college degree were now facing “​deaths of despair​”—suicide, overdoses from drugs and alcohol, and alcohol-related liver disease. Distress caused by globalization and rapid technological change probably drove the deadly outcome, the research by Anne Case and Nobel Prize winner Angus Deaton suggests. Middle-aged whites are now more likely than their predecessors to report pain and mental-health problems and are experiencing symptoms of alcoholism at a younger age.

The new CDC report confirms that middle-aged adults (45–64) have the highest suicide rateincrease​ of any age group. More than 80 percent of people who commit suicide are white and about 77 percent are men.

Veterans At Risk

The suicide risk is particularly high for the men and women serving the country in the armed forces. “After adjusting for differences in age and sex, risk for suicide was 22 percent higher among Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adults,” the ​US Department of Veterans Affairs reported​ in 2017. “After adjusting for differences in age, risk for suicide was 19 percent higher among male Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adult men. After adjusting for differences in age, risk for suicide was 2.5 times higher among female Veterans when compared to U.S. non-Veteran adult women.” About 22 veterans take their own life every day, that is one every 65 minutes.

Fighting the Epidemic

The suicide epidemic has captured the headlines for now. A ​CBS commentary​ even asked whether suicide will become the "opioid epidemic" of the 2018 midterm elections. Clearly, much more needs to be done to tackle this growing problem.

When it comes to suicide, the general public often pictures someone with mental health issues who had been getting treatment for a long period before committing suicide, but all too often that is not the case. Suicides frequently occur without prior warning signs.

Any public health effort to reduce suicides cannot simply focus on people who have reached out for help. It has to be combined with measures that would make suicidal people less likely to die even if they don’t go to see a physician. Generally, too many people with behavioral health issues continue to fall through the cracks. At a time when nationwide deaths from suicide, alcohol, and drugs have surged dramatically, gaps in mental health care services remain pervasive in the US, according to a ​recent report​ by the Commonwealth Fund.

The mental health professionals of The Farley Center and The Pavilion at Williamsburg Place are acutely aware of the risk of suicide and the importance of maintaining good mental health. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please know that you are not alone. If you are in danger of

acting on suicidal thoughts, call 911. For support and resources, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line.

Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a Veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line for confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Call 800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at, or text to 838255.