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The Growing Number Of Suicides Is Dragging Down U.S. Life Expectancy

Joe Hunt (left) films a group of students making a suicide prevention PSA in Milliken, Colorado.
Joe Hunt (left) films a group of students making a suicide prevention PSA in Milliken, Colorado.

This year, high-profile incidents like the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade as well as clusters of suicides among young people in communities all over the country have served as a reminder that suicide is a growing public health issue in the U.S.

Now, new data shows that overall life expectancy for Americans has declined, in part, due to the ongoing increase in suicide deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

From 2016 to 2017, death rates increased for 7 of the 10 leading causes of death in the US. For suicides, the increase was 3.7 percent

“I was surprised that the suicide rate has continued to go up,” said Holly Hedegaard, a medical epidemiologist at the National Center for Health Statistics and one of the authors of the data brief. “In the last 50 years, it’s the highest suicide rate we’ve had in the country. Suicide rates were higher back in the 1930s but in terms of the last 50 years, the rate in 2017 is the highest it’s been.”

The Gender Divide

According to the report, from 1999 through 2017, suicide rates increased for both men and women. The overall rate increased 33 percent, from 10.5 suicides for every 100,000 people in 1999 to 14 suicides for every 100,000 people by 2017.

Over those 18 years, for women, the rate increased 53 percent, but was still much lower than the suicide rate among men. In 2017, the rate for men was 22.4 suicides per 100,000 people. In Colorado last year, men accounted for 76 percent of total suicide deaths.

The Impact Of Rural Life

The difference in suicide rates between rural and urban areas is growing. While the rate for the most rural U.S. counties in 2017 was 53 percent higher than the rate in 1999, the rate in most urban counties was just 16 percent higher.

Walden, Colorado: a small town in the northwestern corner of the state.

Sarah Brummett, Director of the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention, was not surprised by the new data.

“[I]t really speaks to the crux of the issue, which is there is something larger and more systemic going on than how we have typically told the story of suicide and suicide prevention,” Brummett said. “It’s much larger than just an individual-level mental health issue. Certainly, mental health is a part of it … but there’s so much more going on at a community and societal level.”

This trend is playing out in rural communities all across the country, including many in Colorado, a state with a significant rural-urban divide.

“Our rural and frontier counties are typically more isolated,” Brummett explained. “You have a harder time accessing resources. Not just crisis resources but physical health and wellness resources to begin with. We also see impacts of economic consequences of a shifting local economy.”

Financial and environmental challenges within farming and ranching communities, for example, have affected rural economies. Farmers have among the highest suicide rates of any professional group in the U.S., according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, an organization funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Access to firearms is another factor. As in the rest of the U.S., in Colorado, around half of suicide deaths are the result of a gunshot wound. Research shows that firearms are the most lethal method. In rural areas, where suicide rates tend to be higher, Brummett points out, firearms also tend to play a more significant role in everyday life.

“I don’t think we can ignore the changes in rural communities that have happened over the past decade,” said Brummett, “in regards to the economy and housing and all of those things that impact families and individuals at a basic level.”

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the.

is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.

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As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.