Monday, May 2, 2016

The Mystery of the Suicide Trend

One of the urgent mysteries of this century is the increase in suicide. The trend was not noticed quickly but in retrospect can be traced back to about 1997. Careful and serious studies of the increasing suicide rates focus on national statistics, but it is in fact a global trend. There are headlines in the United States about the increase in deaths from suicide among women and adolescent girls, but the rate of suicide among males was already higher and it is increasing too. Attempts to explain the suicide trend have failed in general, but they especially have failed to explain the global reach of the current suicide trend.

I usually like to speculate about trends but nothing I can suggest about the suicide trend rings true.

  • Overpopulation could be a factor, but the suicide trend is, if anything, stronger in places where food is sufficient and the population is not increasing.
  • Methods of death say that suicide attempts are mainly the result of impulsive thinking, but the problem is not that people are becoming more impulsive. Suicidal thoughts are increasing at similar rates among those who have never attempted suicide.
  • Suicide correlates with community rates of alcohol addiction, but globally, alcohol consumption appears to be falling.
  • Suicide historically correlates with recession, unemployment, and austerity budgets, but has continued to increase even as the simple measures of economic pressure suggest that conditions are improving.
  • The suicide crisis is most obvious in the far north, but as an NPR reporter found while looking into suicide in Greenland, the country with the world’s highest suicide rate, “It's Not The Dark That Kills You” — and it’s not the cold either.
  • Suicide seems to have increased faster in places with more obvious climate change, but suicide attempts don’t seem to be connected to weather events.
  • Rapid modernization or future shock can be a precipitating event in suicide, but if that were the primary cause we would worry about those who had recently moved to southern California. Instead, suicide in California is in line with trends elsewhere.

I started looking at the suicide trend because of the story of Attawapiskat, a town on James Bay in Ontario, where suicide attempts have become so frequent since last fall that local authorities had to declare a state of emergency. As globally, the trend in Attawapiskat remains unexplained. The suicide trend is a disturbing development that calls for an explanation and a solution.