No exit

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate among Americans of almost every race, age, and sex has risen between 1999 and 2014.  The data compiled by the CDC only cover trends by demographic factors, and the report itself doesn’t go into details about what motivated the persons to commit suicide or what methods they used.

On the CNN website, Carina Storrs goes into more detail in an article titled, “U.S. suicide rates up, especially among women, but down for black males.” The rate in 1999 was 10.5 per hundred thousand, and that figure rose to 13 per hundred thousand by 2014.  These collective numbers average out to significant differences among groups.  Men commit suicide much more often than women—rates of 20.7 as opposed to 5.8—and men seventy-five years of age and older do so at the highest rate, 38.8, though that rate was one of the few declines over the period, and in terms of numbers, not rate, men twenty-five to forty-four years old have the most suicides.

The changes in rates over the period, especially among women, show one of the problems that comes in when dealing with small numbers.  For example, suicide among girls ages ten to fourteen jumped by 200%, but the rate started at 0.5 and went to 1.5.  Those rates come from fifty suicides of girls that age in 1999 and 150 in 2014.  Pointing out that some numbers are small is often attacked as heartless, but that’s the nature of mathematics, particularly of statistical analysis.  The size of the numbers also subject us to statistical noise, fluctuations in the events that arise from chance or clustering that is random, not due to some common factor.

All of this is to say that the subject here is complex, not something that permits simple answers.  And yet, predictably, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America leapt in to the discussion with a tweet declaring, “New CDC Report: U.S. suicide rates up; suicide by gun remains one of the top methods.”  This tweet ignores facts stated in the CNN article that they link to, the article cited above.

For example, “In both 1999 and 2014, firearms were the most common method by which men took their own lives, although the proportion of all suicides in men that were firearm-related decreased from 61.7% to 55.4%.”  In other words, more men are killing themselves, but many of them are using means other than guns.  Poisoning is the method most commonly used by women, and “suffocation-related suicide, primarily hanging, has increased, from 16.3% to 26% among women and from 19.1% to 26.8% among men.”

If we want to focus on methods, the rise of opioid suicides is a likely driver of the rise in overall rates.  And the evidence from around the world shows that the presence or absence of a particular method doesn’t change the numbers.  As of 2014, the United States was 47th out of 172 nations, and of the nations with higher rates, country after country have far stricter gun laws than we do.

Unlike Moms Demand Action, I’d like to see effective answers to suicide, not merely an obsession with removing one means, rather than addressing what makes people want to die or working to make effective mental health services available to everyone.  The advocates of gun control will accuse me of dodging here, but what they insist on doing is to force us to defend our rights, rather than work together on saving lives.  Suicide prevention and gun rights aren’t contradictory.  Fortunately, we can deal with several things at once, both as individuals and as a society.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of