Suicide rates are rising in the U.S.; experts attribute high rate in rural Ky. to poor mental health access, stigma and ‘gun culture’

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

After a decade of decline, suicide is becoming more common in the United States, increasing by 24 percent from 1999 through 2014, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC report looked at cause-of-death data between 1999 and 2014 and found that suicide rates increased for both males and females in all age groups from 10 to 74.

Graph: CDC Age-adjusted suicide rates by sex

Overall, the suicide rate increased from 10.5 per 100,000 people in 1999 to 13 per 100,000 in 2014, showing a steady 1 percent annual increase through 2006 and a 2 percent annual increase after that.

And while the suicide rates for males continues to be higher than those for females, the report notes that the gender gap is narrowing. Among females, the rate of increase was 45 percent, compared to 16 percent for males.

Suicide rates for middle-aged women aged 45-64 were the highest, in both 1999 (6 per 100,000) and 2014 (9.8 per 100,000), showing a 63 percent increase. In females, the largest increase occurred among girls 10-14 (200 percent), though the actual number of suicides in this group was relatively small, tripling from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.5 in 2014.

For men, suicide rates were highest for those 75 and over, with approximately 39 for every 100,000 men in 2014. However, men 45-64 had the greatest increase among males, increasing from 20.9 per 100,000 in 1999 to 29.7 in 2014, a rise of 43 percent.

In 2014, poisoning (34.1 percent) was the most common method of suicide in females and firearms (55.4 percent) was the most common in males.

The CDC report didn’t address why suicides are up, but several studies offer clues about possible reasons among the middle-aged, including a study published in 2015 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine that found that “job, financial, and legal problems” are most common in adults aged 40-64 who had committed suicide, and a 2011 CDC study which found that suicide rates increased during periods of economic recession and declined during economic growth among people aged 25-64 years.

Rural areas have highest suicide rates

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the nation and the state, and with nearly 700 Kentuckians dying by suicide annually, Kentucky is one of the top 20 states for it.

Suicide is more prevalent in rural areas, where the rate is almost twice as high as in urban areas (17.6 suicides per 100,000 vs. 10.3 per 100,000), according to a separate CDC study.

“The myth is that suicide is an inner-city, urban problem, but the reality is that it is not,” Melinda Moore, a licensed psychologist and assistant professor at Eastern Kentucky University, said in a telephone interview.

Moore, also the chair of the Kentucky Suicide Prevention Group, attributed some of the increase in suicide rates in rural Kentucky to its “gun culture.”

“We have a culture that is very familiar with guns and that familiarity, unfortunately, can really lead to people using very lethal means when they are suicidal,” she said.

And when you add gun culture to economic distress, which is common in much of rural Kentucky, it can be a “cocktail for disaster” for those who are suicidal, she said.

Another challenge is the lack of access to mental-health care in rural Kentucky, Moore said, noting that even if people have access to mental-health providers, many providers aren’t trained to work with suicidal people. She said this should be improving, since the state now requires all behavioral health providers get suicide training when they renew their licenses.

Julie Cerel, psychologist and associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, attributed the increase in rural suicides to several things, including the Gun culture, lack of access to mental-health care and the stigma that surrounds mental-health issues that deters people from seeking help.

Cerel, also president-elect of the American Association of Suicidology, said one reason for the national increase in suicides could be that coroners have become better trained on how to report them. She said that is very important, because people who were close to a person who died by suicide need to know so that they can seek their own mental-health support.

Cerel said 47 percent of Kentuckians knew someone who died by suicide, “and people who are exposed to suicide, especially if it is someone close to them, are more likely to have their own depression and anxiety and thoughts of suicide.”

What should you do if you have suicidal thoughts or are concerned about someone?

Moore and Cerel said the first line of defense, especially in areas that don’t have great mental-health resources, is to call the national suicide-prevention lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free, 24/7 service that can provide suicidal persons or those around them with support, information and local resources. It also offers a website at .

Moore said community mental health centers are also great resources for those who are suicidal in rural Kentucky, and Cerel stressed the importance of telling someone if you are having suicidal thoughts, including your primary health-care provider.

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