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U.S. suicide rates highest since WWII. But this intervention saves youths

The CDC says suicide has risen across ethnic and age groups, reaching post-World War II high. But new research suggests teens with suicide ideation — and maybe others — could be helped by this intervention.

The CDC says suicide has risen across ethnic and age groups, reaching post-World War II high. But new research suggests teens with suicide ideation — and maybe others — could be helped by this intervention.
The CDC says suicide has risen across ethnic and age groups, reaching post-World War II high. But new research suggests teens with suicide ideation — and maybe others — could be helped by this intervention.
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SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. suicide rates are higher than at any time since World War II, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rates rose among nearly all racial and ethnic groups between 1999 and 2017 — with the exception of non-Hispanic Asians and Pacific Islanders — but the increase is especially striking among the country's indigenous populations.

The CDC report, which used age-adjusted rates, said that 14 of every 100,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017 — a 33 percent increase since 1999 and the highest rate since 1942, but below the peak seen during the Great Depression.

Mary Archbold

The highest rate of increase for female suicide was among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Natives. That 139 percent jump brought the rate from 4.6 to 11 per 100,000 from 1999 to 2017. Those indigenous women had the highest levels among the racial groups for those in the 15 -24 and 25-44 age categories. Of those age 45-64, non-Hispanic white females had the highest suicide rate, at 12.8 per 100,000.

For males, the largest increase in age-adjusted suicide rates was also among the non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native group — a 71 percent increase from 19.8 in 1999 to 33.8 in 2017. As with females, that racial/ethnic category had the highest rate increases for those ages 15-24 and 25-44 (53.7 and 58.1). But among those age 45-64, non-Hispanic white males had the highest rate, at 38.2 per 100,000.

The CDC said it could not calculate reliable rates by age group in other age categories. It also said studies indicate undercount of suicides among Hispanics and among non-Hispanic Asian or Pacific Islanders and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Natives because people may be classified wrong.

Meanwhile, a new study from the University of Michigan published in JAMA Psychiatry found that teens with suicide ideation can be helped long term by a relatively simple intervention that involves identifying a network of "trusted" people to whom they can turn for support and then ensuring those people know how to help.

Concerns over rising suicide numbers in recent years have prompted school- and community-based efforts to intervene, with significant evidence that having a strong, supportive network helps. Federal agencies, academics, treatment experts and others have all teamed up to support research into promising strategies that deter suicide.

One such collaboration, Zero Suicide, notes that evidence-based interventions fall into three basic categories: "caring contacts," coping therapies with a focus on skill building and problem solving, and "collaborative assessment" treatment planning.

Helping youths over time

The University of Michigan study tracked the number of deaths among young adults who enrolled in a study in the early 2000s after being hospitalized as teens for suicidal thoughts or attempts.

Mary Archbold

The youths were randomly assigned to standard care and support or into a group that nominated some caring adults in their lives who could be trained to provide extra support. Those youth-nominated, trusted adults received training in how to provide support and how to talk to the teens "in ways that could encourage positive behavioral choices," according to a news release on the study.

The youths' designated supporters came from the ranks of family members, coaches, teachers and youth group leaders, among others.

Twelve years later, "far more of the young people who got standard of care had died, compared with young adults in the group that had received the extra adult support," the study found.

While the study did not show cause and effect, it did find a strong association between the support provided by the caring adults and reduced risk of early death — "and specifically a reduced risk of death from either suicide or drug overdose of undetermined intent."

Nominating a support network that then got some guidance "may have had small and cascading positive effects that combined to have a long-term impact on the risk of dying," the lead researcher, Cheryl King, University of Michigan professor of psychiatry and psychology, theorized.

She told Healthline, “It’s not that easy to reach out, to think you’re going to be helpful to a suicidal teen. And that’s because, as adults, we feel like we’re going to make things worse or say the wrong thing.”

Why so many deaths?

Neither the CDC nor the Michigan study listed reasons for an increase in suicide. But as Time reporter Jamie Ducharme wrote, "The opioid crisis, widespread social media use and high rates of stress may be among the myriad contributing factors."

“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits all reason,” Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told Time. “I don’t think there’s something you can pinpoint, but I do think a period of increased stress and a lack of a sense of security may be contributing.”

In writing about an unprecedented increase in teen anxiety and potential reasons, the Deseret News' "Generation Vexed" compiled a list from experts that included everything from high-pressure parenting to living in an age of disconnection because of technology, uncertainty about jobs and careers, financial pressure and a sense that the world is dangerous, even though crime is actually down, among others. Experts noted that anxiety can, unchecked, sometimes lead to suicide.

But they also said there's never just one reason for a suicide, but more often a series of events or issues that combine and may seem insurmountable.

Other research from the University of Michigan looked at suicide among those in long-term care. That, too, pointed to support and help as an answer. They said more focus by caregivers and others should be placed on promoting social and mental well-being.

If someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, resources are available. In Utah, the SafeUT app provides a direct connection to a crisis line. Other resources include:

National Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

University Neuropsychiatric Institute Crisis Line: 801-587-3000

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: