Suicide: America’s Next Public Health Crisis

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The Stanford community, women’s soccer, and the friends and family of Katie Meyer have been grappling with the news of her suicide. This incident coincidentally has brought to light America’s next major public health crisis. In post-pandemic America, suicide is expected to rise to epidemic proportions among young people.

No matter what data set was used, suicide rates rank high on the American list of deaths. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reported that suicide was the tenth most common cause of death in America in 2019 with more than 47,500 deaths. It was the second leading cause of death in individuals aged 10 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death in Americans aged 35 to 44.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “factors like social isolation, economic decline and family stressors, new and worsening mental symptoms, disruptions at work and school, and the COVID-19 pandemic” have all contributed to nearly 840,000 deaths by suicide between 1999 and 2020. Suicide was the 12th leading cause of death in America in 2020.

Because of the greater burden of proof required in many states to declare death as suicide on an official certificate of death, the number of suicides in the U.S. could actually be higher. The factors that contribute to lowering suicide rates include social stigma, misclassification, accidental death underreporting, and lack of autopsies. The suicide rate is actually much higher than is listed in the primary cause of death. Add to that the delayed effects from the pandemic, and you have a national disaster waiting for our youth.

The suicide rate among young Americans has increased significantly since the 1980s. The suicide rate among young men has increased by three times, and that of young women like Katie Meyer has increased twofold. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is now the third leading cause of death in America for those aged 15-24. The highest suicide rate is found among adults between 40 and 59.

Although suicide rates have declined slightly over the COVID-19 period, officials expect suicide rates to rise as the country tries to deal with the long-term effects of the pandemic. This includes isolation, stress, economic insecurity, worsening substance abuse, mental well-being, and increased anxiety. The CDC data suggests that suicide rates can be stable or decline after a natural or international disaster. However, they will always rise as a result. This is what happened in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina.

As American society, families, and communities reintegrate after lockdowns and other measures to mitigate pandemics, suicide prevention is vital. Meyer’s father Steve said that life can be difficult for anyone, even the most difficult. In a recent interview with NBC, he stated that “for some people, it may not be difficult to speak up” about mental health issues. They have a strong reputation and people regard them as strong. So reach out to them.

He’s right. It is important to be alert, especially in the next few years. We need to be careful about how we check in with family and friends who, while they may appear fine on the outside, could actually be suffering from the inside.

To those in distress, be brave and ask for help. Let Katie Meyer’s passing inspire you, Katie would say, to “be the mindset,” even if it means asking for help. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Please ask for help. We can and will overcome this together.