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Four suicides an hour

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Published October 06. 2012 09:02AM

The suicide rate in the United States has risen by about 15 percent over the past decade, with people killing themselves at a rate of about one every 15 minutes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

When most people read about suicide rates, they automatically think "teenager."

They couldn't be more wrong.

The suicide rate among teenagers, which had tripled for boys and doubled for girls between the mid-1950s and the late 1970s, generally leveled off during the 1980s and early 1990s, says the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Since the mid-1990s, the teen suicide rate has been steadily decreasing.

However, the rate at which middle-aged adults commit suicide is on the rise.

"The suicide rate has been on a steady increase among middle-age men and women, ages 45-64, for the past 15 years," says Dr. Paula Clayton, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Medical Director. "There are several theories including an aging Vietnam veterans and baby boomer populations, increased use and addictions to prescription pain medications, and the effects of a downturn in the economy."

National trends

In 2010, the latest data available, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, with 12.4 of every 100,000 people choosing to end their own lives, according to the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, DC. Pennsylvania exactly mirrors the national rate, while Wyoming has the highest rate, 23.2 per 100,000 people, and the District of Columbia is lowest at 5.8.

But it is the teenage suicides that have caught media attention in recent decades. News stories about bullied teens being driven to suicide have been prominent: The loss of a young life is especially tragic.

While the rate of suicide among those aged 15-24 has risen slightly, from 10.4 per 100,000 in 2000 to 10.5 in 2010, it is still troubling. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among those 5-14 years old, and the third leading cause of death among those 15-24 years old, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The reality behind the numbers hit close to home last month, when four Luzerne County teenagers, ranging in age from 13 to 16, killed themselves within the space of one week.

The rate among the elderly also has decreased slightly from 2000 to 2010. The rate for those aged 65 and older dipped from 15.3 to 14.9 during that period.

For those ages 25 to 34, the rate rose a bit, from12.8 to 14 per 100,000 people. For those in the 35-44 age range, the rate went from 14.6 to 16.

The biggest spikes were among those aged 45-64.

In the 45 -54 age range, the rate per 100,000 people spiked from 14.6 to 19.6. For those in the 55-64 range, suicides went from 12.3 to 17.5 per 100,000 people.

"Suicide rates increased for virtually all groups in 2010 compared to 2008 and recent preceding years. We are unable to determine any certain reason or reasons for the increase, but the economic crises of this time period are certainly highly likely as a contributing factor," says Dr. John L. McIntosh, Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Professor of Psychology at Indiana University South Bend.

McIntosh, along with Christopher W. Drapeau, prepared the data for the American Association of Suicidology.

"The middle-aged have experienced a longer increase (in suicide rates) than seen for any other group, starting at the end of the 1990s and extending through the 2010 data," McIntosh says. "It is particularly unclear what has produced this increase."

The rates for those 65 and older dropped from 15.3 to 14.9 between 2000 and 2012. For those 85 and older, suicides dropped from 19.4 to 17.6 between 2000 and 2010.

Notable spikes in suicide have occurred for both soldiers and for lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual youth, studies have shown.

In July, 38 active duty soldiers killed themselves the most in one month since the U.S. Army began releasing data in 2009. The Marine Corps saw eight members commit suicide in July, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. The high rates prompted the Army to hold a "stand down day" in observance of suicide prevention in September.

"The loss of any life is a tragedy, and this loss is preventable," Sgt. Major of the Army Ray Chandler stated as part of the observation. "As an organization, we've taken huge strides in providing our soldiers, Department of Army civilians and family members the needed resources to aid in suicide prevention, but our work isn't done. Army leaders will continue to do everything we can to reverse these trends."

Lesbian, gay and bisexual youths are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, a study by Dr. Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University found.

The study found that attempted suicides happened more frequently when the young people were surrounded by a negative social environment. However, those living in social environments that were more supportive were 20 percent less likely to try to kill themselves, he found.

"The results of this study are pretty compelling," Hatzenbuehler wrote. "When communities support their gay young people and schools adopt anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that specifically protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, the risk of attempted suicide by all young people drops, especially for LGB youth."

What works

A recent study in the American Journal of Public Health pointed out that while the national suicide rate has risen by 15 percent over the past decade, deaths from traffic crashes have dropped by 25 percent.

Study authors Ian R.H. Rockett, PhD, MPH, of the West Virginia University School of Public Health in Morgantown, and colleagues, attribute the drop in accidents to "comprehensive and sustained traffic safety measures."

"Similar attention and resources are needed to reduce the burden of other injury," they wrote.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Clayton says that "We know that the best strategies for preventing suicide include getting those who are struggling with depression, or other mental disorders that can lead to suicide, treatment. Studies show that 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying mental disorder at the time of their deaths."

"Another strategy is to reduce access to lethal methods of suicide, such as safe firearm storage and barriers on bridges known for suicide attempts,' she says.

Clayton says the "most effective strategies are ones in which encourage teenagers to seek help and treatment for depression. This includes educational programs such as our More Than Sad: Teen Depression films which inform students about depression and what treatment looks like. This is designed to decrease the stigma of both the illness and its treatment."

Jim Tkach, a well-known local football coach and the father of Travis "Bo" Tkach, who took his own life in 2007 at age 25, has some advice for parents. Bo Tkach had struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Hs parents cherished him and raised him well; Bo knew he was loved.

But the OCD had made his life a living hell, and he saw no other way out. His family, despite their best efforts, was helpless to stop it. Bo left a note: "I love you, I appreciate what you've done, but I don't think I'm going to make it."

The Tkach's most cherished memories are of time spent with Bo.

"The number one thing is to give your time to your children," Jim Tkach says. "And, let them learn from their rough times. When you become a parent, there are things you give up: time. They need your time. You need to support and communicate with your child."

Tkach also asks parents to "give children a sense of purpose create a work ethic. That lawn and that house that they live in is their responsibility, too. How can you appreciate anything if you haven't put any time into it? Working as a family is especially important."

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