Killing Ourselves

Some societies have a lot of suicides and some don’t. The United States has a fairly high suicide rate (13.7 out of 100,000). But Europe as a region, for some reason, has the highest suicide rate in the world (15.4). To put that in context, the global average is 10.6 out of 100,000. That puts Europe more than half again higher than average. Excluding the United States, other former British colonies are about average: Canada (10.4) and Australia (11.7). And the United Kingdom for some reason is rather low (7.6). The United States is listed as the 34th most suicidal in the world (in a comparison of 183 countries), almost as high as Europe in general, but no where near the levels of specific European countries like Russia.

The suicide rate overall in Africa is actually quite low (7.4 out of 100,000), even if well above that of Eastern Mediterranean (3.9). The African rate is lower than Southeast Asia (13.2), Western Pacific (10.2), and Americas (9.8). So Africa’s rate is less than than half that of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean a quarter — near the bottom can be found every single Eastern Mediterranean country (Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, and Jordan). On the other hand, some specific African countries have high suicide rates (e.g., Lesotho). In Africa, 28 countries are below the global average and 26 are above, but considering in total it’s so much further below average must mean there is larger populations in the low suicide rate African countries. Still, one must note that about half of the countries with the worst suicide problems are African. And to compare with Europe, there are 29 below and 20 above. That also has to do with some of the largest European countries being disproportionately found on one end of the rankings, tilting all of Europe toward the suicidal.

Interestingly, there isn’t a single European country in the bottom 26, whereas 4 of them are African. All of the countries with the very lowest rates, in the bottom 11, were Hispanic North American and Asian, which creates a stark contrast for the mostly non-Hispanic United States being so relatively high in the rankings. In the bottom 50, there are only 4 European countries: Greece, Italy, Albania, and Armenia; although Greece can be grouped instead with the Eastern Mediterranean countries. Europe is largely divided by more suicides in the north and less suicides in the south. It’s harder for me to discern, but the pattern with Africa seems to be more suicides in former regions of the slave trade, in contrast to many of the countries with fewer suicides being in the north and east of the continent. In general, countries around the Mediterranean (North Africa, Levant, and Southern Europe) tend to be less suicide-prone.

In the top 50, there is included only one country from Oceania (Kiribati). And, despite some being above average, no North American country is close to the top, not even the United States. Whereas several South American countries are at or near the top with the most suicidal country in the world being South American Guyana. The top 11 countries rate from 20 to 30.2 per 100,000 with several of them being European (Russia at 26.5, Lithuania at 25.7, and Belarus at 21.4), with that top level being more than twice as high as the United States and almost twice as high as the European average. Even some advanced European countries are above the United States (Belgium at 15.7 and Finland at 13.8) with others not far behind (Iceland at 13.3), if that makes Americans feel better.

At its worst during the Great Depression, the American suicide rate surged from 18 in 100k up to 22 in 100k (Jim Craven, More Americans Commit Suicide Than During the Great Depression). That is much higher than now, but because of the larger population there are actually more total number of Americans killing themselves now than then, similar to how there are more American blacks in prison now than once were in slavery. The United States is such a massive country with many states larger than most countries in the world and so it is helpful to break it down. Some parts of the United States and some demographics have low suicide rates while elsewhere it is extremely high. Looking at 2016 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, even though there isn’t data available for most places, I counted around 130 counties that have suicide rates greater than 25 out of 100k and maybe another few hundred with less than that but more than 20 out of 100k; the rural average being 18.9 (Suicide Death Rates for U.S. Counties).

The Mountain West is called the “Suicide Corridor” (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona) with suicides at 17.65 per 100k, a pattern that has held for the past century. “The reason suggested for this suicide corridor is that the mountain west has people that have a propensity for suicide, which are: Native Americans, non-Hispanic whites, and older retired people. […] Arizona has one of the worst suicide rates at 17.65 out of 100,000. Arizona’s suicide rate is worse than the 22nd worse country in the world for suicides at 17.2 out of 100K, which is SUDAN. The causes for SUDAN’s high suicide rate is similar to the problems in Arizona, which are: poverty, crime, corruption, and a brutal legal system” (Mark and Carol Fairall, The Real Faces of Elder Abuse). Clarifying that it isn’t only about poor rural white men, consider that the Native American suicide rate is 22.5 out of 100k, compared to 15.4 for non-Hispanic whites (Caroline Jiang Andreea Mitran, Arialdi Miniño, and Hanyu Ni, Racial and Gender Disparities in Suicide Among Young Adults Aged 18–24: United States, 2009–2013). The Mountain West is a region of many tribal reservations and living conditions there are often quite poor, in more than one sense of the word — even the soil tends to be poor, as Native Americans were forcefully moved onto lands that were useless for farming.

To emphasize this point, “An Arizonan commits suicide every seven hours” (Fairall). To give a specific example from Mojave County in Arizona, 28.3 out of 100k kill themselves, “nearly triple the national rate and double Arizona’s rate” (Jim Seckler, County in poor health, poverty). Arizona is far from leading the way — according to 2014 data: Wyoming at 29.66 out of 100k, Montana at 23.17, Alaska at 23.0, New Mexico at 21.21, and Colorado at 20.27. It’s more impressive when you break it down by demographics, such as with middle age white men: “With a suicide rate of 44 per 100,000, men in this age and geographical group have more than three times the risk of dying by suicide than the national average. In Wyoming, approximately 80 percent of suicides are men; a quarter are men ages 45-64.” (Anna Maria Barry-Jester, Surviving Suicide In Wyoming). Yet, “when you start looking at the data, this region of the country leads for men, for women, across all racial groups, across all ethnicities. It’s not just a rural problem, whatever it is is also in urban areas, as well as everywhere in between and across all age groups.”

Much of the above data comes from the Wikipedia article on international comparison of suicide rates, but on the same page there is a second collection of data from 1985-2017 that shows suicide rates as being much higher across the board. Accordingly, the United States has 21.8 suicides out of 100k, instead of 13.7, but in either case significantly above the global average. Considering the starting point of that data, I wonder if that is biased by the suicide spike that happened in my childhood of the 1980s, as my generation at the time had a high suicide rate (along with high rates of homicide, abuse, addiction, etc; most of it related to high rates of lead toxicity). Other countries saw a similar pattern that increased with lead toxicity and then decreased with environmental regulations that eliminated most lead pollution.

The damage from lead toxicity is permanent and so carries on for the rest of a generation’s lifespan. It is unsurprising that suicide rates have increased to such a degree to capture the attention of mainstream media. Guess who now forms the middle age demographic? Yep, Generation X. Here is a good summary: “Generation-X also, statistically, has suffered the highest childhood suicide rates since 4 previous generations spanning almost 100 years, and now have the highest middle age suicide rates of any living generation. Their current suicide rates now have silently reached the AIDS epidemic levels of deaths — which they also had to worry about in youth” (Danny Brooms, comment).

Also in that second set of Wikipedia data, Greenland shows a whopping level of 116.9 per 100k. That is confirmed by an NPR piece that shows the Greenland suicides as being that high in the late 1980s and having since dropped to 82.8 (Rebecca Hersher, The Arctic Suicides: It’s Not The Dark That Kills You), and so maybe also related to lead toxicity. As another comparison, “In some Native communities in the U.S., the suicide rate is even higher than it is in Greenland. For example, among Alaska Native men 15 to 24 years old, the suicide rate is about twice that of Greenland’s” (The Arctic Suicides: Your Questions Answered). Even so, Greenland too has its local populations that are feeling the pressure. One town there, Tasiilaq, has a suicide rate of 400 per 100k (Hersher). This high national level of suicide is a drastic change from the 1960s when Greenland had few suicides at all, a shift that some blame on the increase of processed foods and so loss of vitamin D that is so important in northern regions, especially to maintain positive mood.

To really put it all in perspective, societies like the Piraha apparently have a rate of suicide that is zero and, one might note, they also eat little if any processed foods, but then again neither do they have any of the other problems of modern civilization. Suicide is so incomprehensible to the Piraha that, when Daniel Everett told a group of Piraha about his aunt’s suicide, they all laughed because it was so absurd they thought he was joking. So, when we see societies with high suicide rates, we shouldn’t take it as normal and inevitable. It’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.

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