Suicide problem acute in New Jersey
For many years New Jersey had the lowest suicide rate of any state in the nation. But that distinction has ebbed recently, just as the nation's rate of suicide rose to the highest level in three decades, according to data released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2012, New Jersey posted the lowest suicide rate of any state, according to the CDC. In subsequent years, however, the state's suicide rate has risen by 13 percent, reaching 8.8 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2014, the latest year for which data are available, New Jersey was tied for second place with Massachusetts.
The state's rising suicide rate may suggest middle-class New Jersey residents are still struggling to cope with the aftershocks of the Great Recession, especially in the midst of a nationwide spike of suicides among middle-aged Americans in the prime of their financial lives, mental health experts said. New Jersey's unemployment rate remained higher than the national average until the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and its rate of home foreclosure remains the highest in the nation, according to RealtyTrac.
"That seems to be the general consensus, that it's related to the recession," said Phil Lubitz, associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Jersey. "We've (seen) that wave of suicides that resulted from the financial crisis a little bit later than other parts of the country."
The report by the CDC confirmed what experts in New Jersey and across the U.S. had long suspected, that suicide is becoming more common across broad swaths of American society and in nearly every demographic group. Nationwide, the suicide rate rose 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, climbing to 13 self-inflicted deaths for every 100,000 people.
The rate rose fastest for girls ages 10 to 14, and among men ages 45 to 64.
"We've had this sense that more middle-aged Americans are dying by suicide, so this reinforced that impression," said Doreen Marshall, vice president of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who grew up in East Rutherford. "It's pretty troubling to see the rate growing that remarkably."
The exceptions to the trend may support the idea that the suicide spike is at least partly rooted in economics, Lubitz said. The only age group that saw its suicide rate decline was adults ages 75 and over. Historically this age group has a relatively high suicide rate, but their Social Security benefits may have spared them some of the vicissitudes caused by the recession, Lubitz said. African-Americans and Hispanics saw their rates increase since 1999, the CDC found, but at a slower pace than whites.
"It confirms the suspicion about the economy," Lubitz told The Record. "These groups weren't so well off before the recession, so they didn't have as far to fall. It's the groups that had more to lose economically" that experienced some of the steepest suicide growth rates.
Another factor in the increase may be better reporting of suicides by hospitals, family members and the police, said Dale Camhi, director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for the Metro-New York region.
"The reduction of stigma probably did account for some of the numbers," Camhi said. "It has allowed people to say yes, my loved one did die from suicide."
In the midst of rising death tolls across the state, Bergen and Passaic counties retain some of the lowest suicide rates in New Jersey. Only three of New Jersey's 21 counties posted lower suicide rates than Passaic and Bergen (ranked fourth and fifth, respectively) between 2010 and 2012, according to the state's public health database.
"But anyone taking their life is too many," Maureen Brogan, state coordinator of the Traumatic Loss Coalitions for Youth, a program by Rutgers University that organizes local responses to tragedies that might incite suicides. "It's really not acceptable."
The dramatic increase in suicides spanning differences of age, demographics and socioeconomics stands in stark contrast to major successes in public health outcomes on a broad range of diseases. Deaths due to common killers such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes have declined in recent years, according to the CDC. But among young adults ages 24 to 34 in New Jersey, suicide remains the second-leading cause of death, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. More than twice as many people died of suicide in New Jersey in 2015 as by homicide, according to the foundation. "Suicide is a public health issue," Brogan said. "Where we've made great strides in reducing other killers of people, suicide is going in the opposite direction."
When looking for causes and possible solutions, Lubitz and others emphasized that each suicide is unique, and often rooted in a number of different causes. Economic setbacks or dim financial prospects for the future may be the immediate prompt for some people to commit suicide, but those concerns are often layered atop deeper problems.
"We know 90 percent of the people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness," Camhi said. "Could financial issues cause someone to become depressed? Yes. But it's more complicated than that. It's also the depression and the hopelessness and the feeling that they can't see any other alternative."
The report by the federal government contained plenty of sobering data. While the rate of suicides among girls aged 10 to 14 remains the lowest of any female age group, at 1.5 deaths per 100,000 people, it tripled over the last 15 years. The rate for middle-aged women between the ages of 45 to 64 also saw a major increase, by 63 percent, higher than the 42 percent increase witnessed in men of the same age group.
Sorted by race and ethnic group, the data showed that Native Americans experienced the largest spike in suicides, with a 38 percent increase among men and 89 percent for women.
"It's a pretty dramatic study," Lubitz said. "The surprise has been the degree to which suicide is an issue in the adult population."
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