The suicides of Ian Alexander, Jr, son of award-winning actress and director, Regina King; Cheslie Kryst, “Extra” correspondent and former Miss USA; celebrity chef, author, and TV host, Anthony Bourdain; and fashion designer, Kate Spade spotlight the growing mental health tragedy in the US. Suicide is increasing across age, gender, race and ethnicity according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC); the rate of suicide increased by 25 percent from 1999 to 2016 in all but one state. It leapt 35 percent from 2000 to 2018, but declined by 2% in 2019. Preliminary CDC data showed a 3 percent decline in 2020, but the rate increased by 5% in those 25 – 34 years old in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death overall in the US. It’s the second leading cause of death in people 15 to 34 years of age, but those most at risk are 45 to 64 years of age. Historically, men committed suicide nearly 4 times more often than women, but women are catching up. The suicide rate of African-American children is twice that of Caucasian children. Suicide rates are higher and rising faster in rural counties compared to urban counties.
Statistics aside, we are talking about people and their heartbroken families and friends–the guilt, the shame, the grief brought on by the suffering and act that irrevocably changes those left behind… sometimes for decades and generations. They struggle with questions like, “Why did this happen? Why didn’t I know? Why didn’t they ask me for help? Why? Why? Why?”
This brings us back to the larger issue of stigma associated with mental illness and the need to tear down cultural and financial barriers which impede diagnosis and treatment. According to the CDC, about 54 percent of suicides occurred in people with undiagnosed mental illness; however, according to Joshua Gordon, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences, “90 percent will have evidence of a mental health condition” after reviewing their medical records and interviewing family members. Men and Hispanics are noticeably less likely to seek help.
Contributors to suicide include forced, prolonged isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic, severe economic downturns like the 2008 Great Recession and the resulting financial stress and rise in housing foreclosures, drug addiction, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia, trauma resulting in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), severe major depression, relationship conflict, chronic pain and other serious physical illnesses.
In 1999, then Surgeon General, Dr. David Hatcher, called suicide “a significant public health problem.” In the US in 2016, almost twice as many suicides (nearly 45,000) occurred compared to homicides. This national public health crisis is not new, and it is escalating. Suicide is the very sad, irrevocable answer to a human being’s deep, severe emotional pain that they just want to stop, but don’t know how to end except for this final, tragic solution. It is the final act of hopelessness and despair.
Nationally, all barriers prohibiting access to diagnosis and treatment of mental illness must be eliminated. In western medicine, our compartmentalized, systems approach to viewing and healing the body must evolve to seeing human beings as a whole being. Our brains aren’t in separate containers from the rest of our bodies, and it can become ill just like any other part of the body can. Comprehensive treatment of physical causes of mental illness must include a stronger focus on fundamental elements such as nutrition. For example, 70 percent of people living north of Atlanta are vitamin D deficient, and this deficiency can result in depression and anxiety. Also, studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids can prevent the development of psychosis.
Stigma of mental health treatment must be reframed and eliminated. No one knows how to do everything. If you have a broken leg, it’s unlikely that you’d know how to heal it; and you would seek medical attention without stigma. Your body can’t live without a brain! It’s your command center that runs everything—what you think, how you feel, what you do. When your brain becomes ill, you should seek help from a mental health professional without stigma the same way you would seek care for your broken leg. There shouldn’t be a difference if your goal is health.
An effective approach to reducing new cases of suicide includes removal of the means to commit suicide; firearms are the primary method used by all groups, followed by suffocation and poisoning.
Established, proven effective treatment of mental illness includes medication and cognitive behavioral therapy to navigate stress, loss and transitions. People must acquire the language to describe their stressful experiences and skills to heal and overcome emotional wounds, trauma and loss. Everybody gets knocked down, and we can’t heal what we won’t face and acknowledge. But we can get help learning to face and heal our pain, giving us another chance at life, and our loved ones another chance at life with us.
For free, confidential support during emotional distress or suicidal crisis, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, call or text 988, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week or
Visit the website or chat: 988lifeline.org