Trend Spotting: Suicide
When you see stories about trends in the news, do you ever stop and think about what it really means? I suspect most people take stories with statistics at face value; after all, if there are numbers to back up the story’s claims, why think twice?
In this occasional feature, I will look deeper at a couple big, attention-grabbing headlines to question whether the so-called trend is really newsworthy or just another attempt to make a story out of a footnote.
Is suicide a growing problem?
According to the Los Angeles Times, yes. An article with the scary headline “Jump in Youth Suicides Reverses Trend” ran in early September, following the release of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The article notes a scary-sounding jump of 76% in suicides of girls ages ten to fourteen, and states that the overall suicide rate for people 10 to 24 increased “substantially,” by eight percent.
As the Times article concedes, the 76% rise represents the difference between 56 suicides in 2003 to 94 in 2004….out of a population of nearly ten million girls. Yes, 76% seems like a big number, but when we put it into perspective its actual meaning isn’t as dramatic as the percentage makes it sound. While each represents a tragedy, 38 more girls committing suicide still means that less than one in a million American girls in this age group committed suicide.
2. Boys are far more likely to commit suicide than girls are.
If you take a look at the graph above (I recommend clicking on it to see it best), you can see that at every age, boys and young men are more likely to commit suicide than girls are. Historically, this is because boys have been more likely to use more violent (and thus more lethal) methods to harm themselves than girls are.
3. In spite of a slight up tick, suicide rates among young people are way down from a decade ago.
Again, if you look at the graph above, the big story is that trends for females are basically flat in the long term and way down for teen boys and young men. Once again, any loss of life shouldn’t be minimized, but as far as major trends are concerned, the news is basically good. Statisticians call small movements up or down “noise” in the data; in other words, it is statistically unlikely to find the same number of suicides year-to-year. Take a look at the end of the graph—do those differences that really seem “significant” in context?
4. The older a person is, the greater the likelihood they will commit suicide.
Here’s the real story, the one that’s usually hidden. It’s not your teenage brother you should worry most about, but your grandfather. With the exception of the 65- to 74 year-old age group, suicide rates steadily increase with age. You might be surprised to find out that according to CDC data, the suicide rate for men aged 85 and older is 47.8 per 100,000 (in contrast to the headline-grabbing .95 per 100,000 for 10-14 year-old girls). Elderly men are more than twice as likely to die of suicide than their 18-34 year-old grandsons, which is rather remarkable considering young men are far less likely to die, period (although they are more likely to be the victims of homicide than their parents or grandparents are).
Why do you think we pay so much attention to teen suicide and all but ignore the rates at which adults take their own lives? I suspect it has something to do with the widespread assumption that teens are inherently unstable. But obviously life can bring significant challenges at any age.
It is no less of a tragedy when someone in their middle or late adulthood decides to end their life. I myself have known three people who killed themselves (two were only about thirty, and one person was elderly) and have seen the horror, pain, and ongoing sadness their loss causes their loved ones. Trust me, it’s no easier to deal with a suicide if the person is older and well out of their teens.
Ironically, the suicide story we hear over and over teaches us very little about suicide, but it does tell us something about our perceptions of young people. This “teen suicide” theme fosters the dubious belief that young people need ever more monitoring and control. What the actual trends tell us is that we need to invest far more resources in providing quality, comprehensive mental health care to people of all ages.