Suicide Statistics and the Language We Use - Or Shouldn't

Suicide is a public health issue that we can all play a part to help prevent, as well as reduce the shame and stigma survivors of suicide face. That's part of what I started the project, and why I'm excited to share stories of the men I had the privilege to meet with. 

Before I decided to do this project, I read a few dozen books and articles on suicide. In this post, I share a few of the most noteworthy facts and figures I came across, and also some historical context. The numbers and statistics are devastating, but on the bright side, there are more programs, services, and trained professionals available to support folks in crisis than ever before.

For starters, suicide has been around since we’ve been recording history. For many cultures, from Vikings to Eskimos, it was seen as the final action that garnered respect and promise of an afterlife. For example, so many Christians took their own lives as martyrs who believed they would enter heaven that the church was forced to redefine suicide as a mortal sin. A similar belief is still present in some cultures, and continues to motivate many to take their own life.

Worldwide, more people take their own life than who die be murder, war, and natural disasters - combined. The World Health Organization reports over 800,000 people die each year by their own hand. Worldwide, it is the third leading cause of death for people from 15 to 44 years of age. The numbers are not definitive because suicide statistics are tough to track. Not only are many deaths reported as accidents – not sure if suicide was the real intention; but, experts believe many don’t report a loved ones death as suicide for fear of shame, stigma, or even financial retribution. For example, it is quite common practice that a family cannot cash in on a life insurance policy of someone who killed themselves within two years of initiating the policy. To put this in context, there are five types of classifications of death that a coroner can choose from: natural, homicide, accidental, suicide, and undetermined.

Here in the United States, suicide is the fourth leading cause of reported death of people between the ages of 15 and 64. Overall, it is the tenth leading cause of reported death, and the numbers continue to climb. In 2013, the last year that we have the full statistics, 41,149 people took their own life. That’s whose death was documented as such. We know that nearly 80% of them are male and they are mostly white. Per capita, Native Americans account for the most suicides by race. 

We also know that there are four male suicides for every female suicide, but three times as many females as males attempt. Though reporting may not show the full picture of the number of people who attempt suicide, nearly 500,000 people visited a hospital last year for injuries due to self-harm behavior. This suggests that approximately 12 people harm themselves (not necessarily intending to take their lives) for every reported death by suicide.

If you can think of the way an individual could take his or her life, it has probably been done. However, The National Center for Health Statistics has enumerated at least 44 general categories of how people die by suicide. Only here in the United States do most people turn to a gun to end their life, with 60% of reported deaths are by bullets, like my father’s was. After guns, people mostly die by hanging and toxic poisoning (overdosing).

When I was reading-up about suicide before I started this project, I learned that Emile Durkeim, who as the founder of Sociology, made his argument for the discipline through his research on suicide. I’m not sure why, but it made me feel a little bit better. This is a tough topic to delve into on an emotional level, for sure; but, intellectually, it is mind-boggling.

Anyhow, here are some other tidbits of intel that were interesting to me. One out of five or six people leave a note of some kind. China is the only major country in the world where men and women die by their hand in equal numbers. Hungary has the highest death rate per capita of any country. Nevada has the highest number in the states. There’s a reason the term ‘Blue Monday’ took hold – it is the day that most people kill themselves. Mornings are the most common time of day.

Once suicide occurs in a family, it is assumed that it becomes a known option of death. This may account for the fact that family members who have lost a loved one to suicide are eight times more likely to kill themselves.

Lastly, have you noticed a word that has been missing throughout this post? Turns of phrase like, ‘died by their own hand,’ ‘died by suicide,’ and ‘killed themselves’ are designed to remove the common phrase ‘committed suicide.’ That is a turn of phrase that I have always had a hard time with and one I’m happy to kick to the curb.

Why’s that, Chris? Well, I’m glad you asked!

It makes it as if my father or any other person who took their own life was a criminal, like ‘he committed a crime.’ Well, he died. Whether it was impulsive or after years of manic depressive tendencies or hospital treatment for a chemical imbalance, it doesn’t matter to me. That is how he died, and though it is a tragedy, it is not a crime. I refuse to lump my dad into that. I’m much more interested in how our society enabled his mental health issues to go untreated in 1981, let alone how the 41,149 others who took their lives in 2013, the last year we have the reported numbers. 

After all, ninety percent of all people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. Their death is a tragedy, not a crime.

On that, let’s talk about depression.

Over 50 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from some form of major depression. If we were to include alcoholics who are depressed into this picture, we’re looking at over 75 percent. We know that 25 million people suffer from depression each year. That’s more than the number who suffer from coronary heart disease, cancer, and HIV/AIDS.

The good news is that depression is among the most treatable of psychiatric illnesses, with 80 to 90 percent of people responding positively to treatment. 

If you or a loved one is in a crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and you’ll be connected with a trained counselor. They can also connect you to mental health services in your area.  The line is available 24/7 and is for people in crisis and those who support people in crisis.

Numbers from fact sheets via American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and World Health Organization, as well as George Howe Holt's tome November of the Soul, The Enigma of Suicide.

Also, a coalition of groups recently released a fantastic resource, Reporting on Suicide, with a host of clear recommendations on how to write and report on suicide. 

And, if you want to have a listen to some of this, here you go