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Increase in American Suicides Has Historical Roots

The recent suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade https and CNN celebrity chef host Anthony Bourdain last week sent shock waves throughout much of the entertainment industry. Reaction from the public was one of incredulity. Millions of people took to social media to express their personal condolences and in some cases, weigh in and discuss their own experiences with either flirting with the option of suicide or reciting stories of friends, relatives, loved ones, neighbors and others who had taken their own lives. It was a riveting spectacle to behold.

It just so happened that during this same time period, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta released federal data showing that suicide rates among Americans from 1999-2016 have been increasing for years in almost every geographic region of the nation, and across socio-demographic lines. Montana accounted for the highest suicide rates among states. Interestingly, the only state that demonstrated a decrease in suicides was Nevada. In spite of this fact, Nevada had the ninth-highest suicide rate in the nation. North Dakota experienced the highest increase at 58 percent during this time period.

Among other facts, the suicide rate for White people and White men in particular increased dramatically. Moreover, what was also striking is that data from JAMA Pediatrics confirmed that suicide rates among Black children 5-12 far exceeded that of White youth in this same age range.

While both studies provide various reasons for such situations in their findings, there are likely a number of social and psychological issues that come into play, as well:

Rural isolation and high veteran population. Large areas of states like North Dakota and Montana are rural, sparsely populated areas where people are largely isolated from large populations. Enduring such experiences frequently produces circumstances for depression, anxiety and eventual suicide. Moreover, Montana, in particular, has a large veteran population and statistics demonstrate that veterans, given the latent trauma that many have experienced while serving in combat, are prone to embrace suicidal tendencies. Veterans have a suicide rate twice that of non-veterans.

Pressure to live up to stereotypes. We live in a society that is still very sexist. From the early days of the republic to Jacksonian America with its anti-intellectual mindset and chivalrous sentiment to the rugged individualism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to the present, this has always been the case. Testimonies from the multitudes of #MeToo victims who have shared chilling accounts of abuse can attest to this fact. The fact is that we live in a society where men are expected to be rough, rugged, resilient and impervious. In essence, men are taught from an early age to be as strong as possible. Show no tears and express no fears! This means that many guys, rather than reaching out for assistance and risking being seen as weak or socially inadequate when they experience mental or emotional challenges or roadblocks, are more inclined to forego any form of help and as a result tend to suffer in silence. Such pain can result in anger, dark moods, physical and psychological disorders and eventually death.

Racism in America is still a strong force. The fact is that many people of color face an onslaught of social indignities on a routine and, in some cases, a daily basis. The past few years (indeed past few months) have seen a dramatic increase in racially charged conflicts in our nation. To be sure, racism affects all people of color but it has always had a particular impact on Black Americans given our long and frequently tormented and turbulent history. Since landing on the shores of Jamestown, millions of Black adults have countless stories of being racially profiled, having their credentials by colleagues. being questioned or challenged, stopped, interrogated and in a number of cases disrespected by law enforcement and, in some cases, ordinary strangers. While enduing such a chorus of disrespectful behavior can be a tumultuous experience for adults, one can only imagine the psychological impact that such unfair treatment can have on children, many of whom are not equipped with the maturity and emotional resources that adults have. Thus, it is not all that surprising that Black children who are often not seen or treated as children, but rather as adults or misfits by their teachers and the larger society, coupled with the economic disenfranchisement and poverty that is so prevalent in many Black communities, these children often experience disillusion and despair that can result in many of these young kids giving up on life even before they reach adulthood.

Disillusionment with the American dream. For many White Americans, particularly heterosexual White middle- and upper-income White Americans, especially White men, there has always been an investment in the early postwar (1945) philosophy that if they were attractive, well groomed, intelligent, earned a college degree, played by the rules, married the right type of spouse, behaved condescendingly or demonstrated disdain toward the “appropriate “ people – eg. non-Whites, gays and lesbians, disabled people, poor people, in some cases, Jews, feminists etc., that they, too, would rapidly ascend the ladder to success. The truth is that up until the late 1970s, there was a large degree of truth in this belief as upward mobility was the norm. On the contrary, since the 1980s, what many have found out is that the ladder has been pulled out from under them. Factors such as unchecked globalization, daunting neoliberalism, outsourcing, greed by corporations and other similar plagues have dampened, if not outright, destroyed such desires. Consequently, rather than driving comfortably down the highway, they have found themselves on a dead-end road. Inhabiting a degree of bitterness upon realizing such a revelation is only natural.

Reasons and outcomes aside, the truth is suicide is an event that results in pain, disillusionment and despair for all who are affected by such depressing and unfortunate tragedy. It is imperative that anyone who is contemplating such a fate act aggressively, utilize all resources and seek help ASAP. Their lives may literally depend on it.

Note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number is 1-800-273-8255. You also can text SIGNS to 741741 for anonymous, free crisis counseling any time day or night.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University.

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