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The US is an Outlier As Suicide Rates Move Higher

These two headlines seem like trouble for me as a US resident:

Why Suicide Rates Are Dropping Around the World

Suicides in the U.S. reached all-time high in 2022, CDC data shows

The first link above gives some historical perspective. In the UK, as gas heating was introduced to more areas in the 60’s and 70’s, there was a pretty significant drop in their suicide rate. Research showed that not having easy access to coal stoves, a very effective suicide method, was a significant part of that drop.

Similarly, in recent years people in Southeast Asia, especially China, have been relocating from rural areas to urban areas, and are less likely to have pesticides available at home. Pesticides, it seems, are also an effective method of taking one’s own life. Many of the most powerful pesticides are also being banned. Suicide rates have dropped because of these kinds of means restrictions. Make something more difficult to accomplish, fewer people do it. Take away the means of taking one’s own life, and fewer people die due to suicide.

That article goes on to point out that in the 2020s there is one very efficient method that is becoming less available to most of the world, but not the US:

One high-income country is a particular exception to the downward trend: the US. Though rates in the country declined throughout the 1990s, at the turn of the century they began to rise again. Between 2000 and 2018, the suicide rate jumped 35 percent. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among young Americans aged 10–14 and 20–35 years old.

You might be shouting: The answer is guns! And you’d be mostly right. In the US, over half of all gun deaths are suicides. In 2021 alone, over 26,000 people died by suicide using a firearm, out of the just over 48,000 recorded suicide deaths in total.

Just like those coal stoves and Chinese pesticides, in the US there is an obvious tool that has proved to be massively effective at taking lives. Guns.

That record high for 2022? Let’s take a quick look at those numbers:

But a main driver is the growing availability of guns, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, senior vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“I don’t know if you can talk about suicide without talking about firearms,” Harkavy-Friedman said.

Having an effective method for suicide be easily accessible ends up with more people lost to suicide. That makes sense.

When we argue about gun control in the US we often mostly pay attention to mass shooting events. That’s reasonable. They are big news events, they are tragic, and the argument usually comes down to the need to have more guns in order to protect ourselves from bad people with guns. What we don’t talk enough about is what kind of risks we create by having easily accessible guns in our society that have nothing to do with large, public, events.

Consider some more facts –

In 2021, firearms accounted for 54.64% of all suicide deaths.

All told, three times as many children were shot in domestic violence incidents as in school shootings and eight times as many died.

When I look at these facts, there is one obvious reality. Having more guns easily accessible ends up with more people dead. If you, or someone in your house, is dealing with suicidal ideation, having a gun available provides an efficient means to end your own life. Having a gun available in an abusive situation makes it more likely that someone is going to end up dead. We talk a lot about the necessity of having guns to protect ourselves, but the reality might be that having guns actually makes life more dangerous.

If the fact that the US is seeing record-high rates of suicide frightens us, we have to seriously look at the best methods we have for suicide prevention. Means restriction is one of them. When someone shares that they are having suicidal thoughts, the best thing we can do is take away their guns and other means of taking their own life. Sadly, most people don’t disclose their suicidal ideations and ask for help. So we don’t know who is at a higher risk for taking their own lives and maybe the lives of their family in the process. Having easy access to an incredibly efficient means for taking your own life only makes it more likely that we’ll continue losing people we love to suicide.

If we want to be serious about suicide prevention, we need to be serious about guns. Right now, we aren’t serious about guns, which begs the question of whether we are serious about suicide prevention.

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