The number of Americans who die by suicide has been steadily increasing across the country for nearly two decades, prompting concerns about how we’re addressing the topic from a public health perspective. By 2016, Americans were nearly twice as likely to die by suicide as from a homicide, with nearly 45,000 people over the age of 10 dying by suicide that year.
Much of the suicide prevention conversation has focused on interventions that could help adult men, who account for roughly 7 out of 10 suicides in the United States. There are public service ads targeting the high suicide rate among middle-aged men, books exploring why so many men die by suicide globally, and numerous news reports on how suicide disproportionately affects men.
But even as men account for the majority of deaths by suicide, women’s suicide rates have been increasing exponentially and outpacing men’s for about a decade, according to new government data.
Both men’s and women’s suicide rates continue to grow in nearly all age groups, but women have seen an overall significantly higher increase since the turn of the millennium, according to a data brief published Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics.
The report found that the rate of women who died by suicide increased 50 percent, compared with 21 percent for men, from 2000 through 2016, the last year for which data are available.
And while men’s rates have increased about 1 percent each year since 2010, the rate of women who died by suicide has seen an average annual growth of 3 percent since 2007.
Data around methods of suicide and rates among different age groups were also included in the report. Notably, suicide rates among women were highest between the ages of 45 and 64. And the leading methods of suicide for women were poisoning and firearms.
We don’t have a good understanding of why it’s increasing in women, but it’s obviously very concerning to us.
Dr. Doreen Marshall of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Dr. Holly Hedegaard, a medical epidemiologist and the lead author on the data brief, told HuffPost her hope is that breaking down suicide data by gender, age group and method can assist in prevention.
“[This information] helps prevention efforts think about how we can go about helping a particular age or gender group, and thinking about different ways of trying to reduce the suicide rates in those groups,” she said.
This new data brief comes a week after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing that deaths by suicide have increased in every state, except Nevada, since 1999. That data also showed 54 percent of people who died by suicide had no known mental health condition.
And though there is never a single cause for suicide, there are often contributing factors that explain a rise in incidences. CDC researchers partially attribute national increases to the effects of the Great Recession and the opioid crisis. But HuffPost also spoke to experts about what could be driving the exponential rise in suicide rates among women specifically.
The consensus is that little is known about why women’s rates are growing so quickly ― but cultural stressors, the defunding of mental health care services and the use of more lethal methods of suicide are likely playing a role.
“We don’t have a good understanding of why it’s increasing in women, but it’s obviously very concerning to us,” said Dr. Doreen Marshall, vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I don’t think that we can say one thing is accounting for all of the increase,” she added. “[But] I do think it’s probably all of these things to some degree coming together.”
Being primary caretakers adds additional stressors
Despite progress in gender equality, women continue to bear the mental and physical strain that comes with being primary caregivers in their families.
“I think one of the things that hasn’t been talked about a lot is the fact that women are in this very difficult place where they are working ― and they’re working full time, sometimes two jobs ― and they’re still the caretakers at home,” said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. “And oftentimes, when you combine those two things and you add that they’re a single parent, that stress is really hard on people.”
Mothers with children under the age of 18 are roughly three times more likely than fathers to say that being a working parent makes it more difficult to advance in their career, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey.
“Women are having children later in life, just as their careers may be burgeoning,” said Dr. Michelle Riba, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan. “They’re taking care of children and having more responsibilities at work, having to take care of their aging parents, having financial stressors.”
And this experience can be compounded by other workplace stressors that affect women, such as pay inequality and workplace harassment.
“We’re seeing the Me Too movement and these famous women who have been harassed by men, but what about the thousands and thousands of women who have been getting harassed for all these years and haven’t been able to deal with these Harvey Weinstein’s of the world?” she said. “[They] may have PTSD and they might not be able to advance in their jobs because they don’t want to play that kind of game with their supervisors.”
Women are using more lethal methods
Historically, women have been known to attempt suicide more often than men but have been less likely to die by it. But Riba and Reidenberg said that’s something that’s been shifting over time as women have begun to use more lethal methods of suicide.
“In the past, women tended to do a lot of self-harm, self-cutting, self-injurious behavior in that way and die by poisoning and overdose,” Reidenberg said. “Now, we’re still seeing that, but they’re also dying by suffocation, hanging and by firearms.”
Though men far surpass women as far as the use of guns in suicides, women showed an increase of 1 percentage point in firearm use from 2014 to 2016. Firearm use is also the second most common method of suicide among women (32 percent), according to the new data report, only surpassed by poisoning (33 percent).
Reidenberg speculates that this change in method is a result of what vulnerable individuals are reading and seeing in media and entertainment.
“As you are subjected to that, over and over in life, and you’re struggling with a mental health issue, it becomes more apparent that it’s readily accessible to you,” he said.
Budget cuts have decreased access to mental health care
Help-seeking behavior, or a lack thereof, can affect a person’s risk for suicide. But a lack of access to quality mental health care can prove even more problematic.
“Traditionally, we can safely say that women have been more of the help-seekers ― they account for more mental health service utilization than men,” Marshall said. “[But] if access changes in a group that would traditionally seek help but now can’t get it for whatever reason … that’s also a problem for suicide because their risk can continue to elevate.”
Marshall, who emphasized that access is an issue across all genders, pointed to state-level budget cuts in the aftermath of the Great Recession that defunded mental health care services across the country.
If access changes in a group that would traditionally seek help but now can’t get it for whatever reason … that’s also a problem for suicide because their risk can continue to elevate.
Dr. Doreen Marshall of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
A 2011 analysis by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that massive cuts to non-Medicaid state mental health spending from 2009 to 2011 totaled almost $1.6 billion. A data analysis by the Cummings Institute placed that number closer to $5 billion from 2009 to 2012 and found this decrease in mental health care access resulted in a total of 5.5. million patients visiting emergency rooms for mental health treatment.
For Marshall, funding is crucial not only for access but for suicide prevention experts to gain a better understanding of what is driving up suicide rates among women and other groups.
“This is one of the reasons we really need more funding for suicide prevention,” Marshall said. “Last year, approximately $39 million was allocated to [the National Institute of Mental Health] to study research, an amount that has been flat for several years. We know that when we invest in health research, we save lives.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.