In 2010 AMERICA’S Department of Health and Human Services set a goal of reducing the country’s suicide rate from 12.1 to 10.2 per 100,000 population by 2020. Instead of falling, however, the rate has climbed. On January 30th the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a federal government agency, reported that more than 48,000 Americans had taken their own lives in 2018, equivalent to 14.2 deaths per 100,000 population. This makes suicide the tenth-biggest cause of death in the United States—deadlier than traffic accidents and homicide.
A recent paper by researchers at Ohio State University and West Virginia University tries to understand why such tragedies occur more frequently in some parts of the country than others. Using county-level CDC data on the nearly half a million 25- to 64-year-old Americans who committed suicide between 1999 and 2016, the authors found that isolation may be an important factor. In 2016 the suicide rate was 25% higher in rural and less-populated counties (those with fewer than 50,000 people) than in more populous ones (with at least 1m). Fifteen years ago, it was only 10% higher.
Several other characteristics go hand in hand with high suicide rates. Deprivation—as measured by low levels of education, employment and income, and high levels of poverty—correlates with more suicides. So does loneliness, which the authors estimate by using the share of households with single or unmarried residents, or residents who have been living in the area for less than a year. Places with fewer opportunities for social interaction (parks, museums, stadiums and the like) tend to have more suicides, too.
Easy access to guns also seems to boost the risk of self-harm. Using a database of firearm-sellers from Infogroup, a data provider, the authors found that the presence of a nearby gun shop was associated with significantly higher suicide rates. American health officials may never find a complete solution to the country’s suicide crisis. Making guns less easily accessible might be a start.
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