Editor’s note: The following story deals with suicide. If you have suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by call or text at 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. For suicide prevention resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, click here.
Suicide in the U.S. increased in 2021 — killing 47,646 people — said federal health officials on Friday. The increase, which reinforces a long-term trend, comes after two years of declines amid the global covid pandemic.
Despite long-running efforts by public health officials to lower suicide rates in the U.S., the numbers have increased nationwide for the last two decades, becoming a leading cause of death in the U.S., particularly among young people. Last year’s 4 percent increase in both suicide rates and numbers was particularly marked among young men in their teens and early 20s, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) report.
“There might be a small drop in one or two years, but the long-term trend has been an increase,” said Syracuse University sociologist Shannon Monnat. The key question this raises is “what is it about the U.S. context that makes so many people not want to live,” she said. “And what is it about our context that is driving that number higher?”
Suicide rates had dropped by about 3 percent in 2020, the first year of the pandemic. That was the biggest decline in four decades, despite reports of huge increases in calls to suicide hotlines. But that drop, attributed to a psychological rallying effect seen across society in wars, natural disasters and other crises in the past, appears to have been a temporary one with the 2021 numbers nearing the record number of suicide deaths, more than 48,000, in 2018.
In July, the U.S. moved to a nationwide 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988 Lifeline) and 988 three-digit number for text message help in times of crisis. It has reported a 45 percent increase in calls in the last year. The lifeline now receives more than 400,000 calls a month, and times to answer these calls dropped to less than a minute.
Uneven risks and unanswered questions
In particular, the new NCHS report points to an increase in suicides among young men in their teens and 20s. Suicides in that group increased by 8 percent, although rates also increased for men in the 30s and 40s as well as men in the late 60s and early 70s. (There were smaller increases among women, but those were not statistically significant, the report concluded.)
Among young men, an open question is whether wider access to guns in the U.S. in recent decades might be a factor in suicides, said Monnat. Most U.S. gun deaths are suicides. “This age group also experienced the largest increase in drug overdose deaths from 2019 to 2020, so maybe there is some common thread connecting these outcomes,” she said.
For older men, finding out what share of them lost their wives to covid in the pandemic might also be revealing, said Monnat. Some research in recent decades has found a link between marital status and suicide rates.
Suicides have comes to be included with overdoses and alcoholic liver disease as “deaths of despair” by the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, mortality driven by job losses and broken families that saw increased mortality among working-class white people and led to now-declining U.S. life expectancies. Whether the latest increase in suicide rates supports that view, or is more an aftereffect of the pandemic, requires more information than the NCHS report provides, said some observers, for example about the race and background of victims, as well as the regions where increases happened. “Suicides are also notoriously hard to measure, and the pandemic would have made that a lot worse,” added University of Massachusetts economist Lawrence King.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.