• Suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S., as reported by the National Institute of Mental Health. 
  • There are a few significant factors that might play a role: Stigma surrounding mental illness, misdiagnosis, and a lack of understanding of one’s thoughts, feelings, or symptoms.
  • First, the stigma surrounding mental illness prevents many from talking about and seeking help for their mental health issues.
  • Also, providers might misdiagnose their patients or diagnose them with one illness and fail to screen them for others.
  • Finally, many individuals don’t understand the symptoms of mental illness and that it can lead to suicidal thoughts and/or feelings.
  • There is a dire need for research that further explores known risk factors, which could help us to better understand why suicide is so prevalent amongst Americans.

Suicide is a critical public health problem. According to the most current data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which dates to 2020, it is the 12th leading cause of death for Americans. Additionally:

  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-14 and 25-34
  • Almost twice as many suicides (45,979) as homicides (24,576) occur in the U.S. each year
  • Men are 4 times as likely to die by suicide as women
  • For every person who dies by suicide, there are 275 people who seriously considered suicide but didn’t follow through

Additionally, suicide rates are especially high among older veterans, as Jonathen Johnson, Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) at Thriveworks, points out, the VA reported in 2016, that nearly 58% of all veterans who committed suicide were Veterans aged 55 years or older. Such significant statistics leave many wondering, why is suicide such a widespread issue in the U.S.?

Factors to Be Considered

Answering this question isn’t so simple. But there are several important factors to consider. Psychiatrist Prakash Masand, M.D., says that the following factors likely play a role in suicide:

  1. Stigma: First, the stigma surrounding mental illness prevents many from getting the mental health help they need. “There is and always has been a stigma around mental illness,” Masand explains. “Every time a celebrity dies by suicide, there is a lot of attention put on the topic. The momentum seems to wane away eventually and people are once again embarrassed to discuss their mental health struggles,” he explains. “We need to continue to push the fact that the brain is like any other organ in the body. Just as your heart or kidneys may have certain issues, so too can your brain. If the stigma is broken, fewer people have to suffer in silence and fewer people will turn to suicide as their escape.”
  2. Misdiagnosis: Also, some people who do seek mental health help don’t get the proper diagnosis or care. “The second issue standing in the way of suicide prevention is the misdiagnosis of clinical depression and bipolar disorder. In fact, studies have shown that it can take up to 10 years to get the correct diagnoses,” Masand says. “There are a number of reasons for this. A physician may only screen for depression, but fail to inquire about mania. Comorbidity in bipolar disorder is also very common, so again, a physician might quickly pick up on an anxiety disorder but fail to screen for other illnesses. Whether you are a family doctor or a mental health practitioner, we must do thorough and comprehensive screenings for mental illness.”
  3. Lack of understanding: And lastly, we don’t always take our symptoms, feelings, or suicidal thoughts seriously. “Finally, some patients don’t see their symptoms as abnormal and think this is just the way they are supposed to be,” Masand explains. “Digging deeper and asking what friends or family have said about the patient’s behavior might present a more objective look at what’s really going on and therefore decrease suicide risks.”

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or feelings, please get immediate help. Call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or go to your nearest emergency room.

Stigma Stands in the Way of Funding for Suicide Research 

All of that being said, there is still much to learn about suicide that will help us to better answer the important question, “Why is suicide such a widespread issue?” And the need to invest in suicide research is apparent, as explained by Licensed Clinical Social Worker Kim Shashoua. 

“Suicide is a topic that still has a lot of stigma attached, which is reflected in how much funding the research has gotten,” says Shashoua. “Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death in the US, but gets a fraction of the funding. Research involving alcoholism has five times the funding. Breast cancer—not all cancer, just breast cancer—has almost seven times the research funding. Dr. April Foreman, a leading suicidologist, often points out how we fund suicide research at the same rate as smallpox research.”

Suicide can be a heavy topic, but the burden rests greatest on the shoulders of those battling dark thoughts and emotions that threaten to overwhelm them—they need helping hands to offer hope. No matter how hopeless a situation may seem, mental health treatment can alleviate the pain that suicidal individuals may be feeling. As the subject of suicide becomes less stigmatized and thoroughly researched, it’s still important for all of us to remain empathetic, vigilant, and willing to support those who are suffering from suicidal thoughts or urges.