In a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) tracking U.S. suicide rates from 2001 to 2021, researchers report that suicide rates increased in 2021 after a two-year decline.
In 2021, overall rates among males and females of all age groups increased by about 4%: the largest one year spike since 2001. That bumped suicide up to the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. in 2021, up a spot from the year prior.
From 2019 to 2020—a stretch of time, in the latter half, marked by the pandemic—suicide rates declined. “That was surprising given COVID-19 and the stresses it brought,” says Sally Curtin, statistician and co-author of the NCHS report. “But we know that COVID-19 affected different groups of people differently. The drop [in suicides] was really mostly experienced by white and middle-aged people; the rates for some other groups were a mixed bag.”
Rates did not, for example, decline among young people during that time. While suicide rates among girls ages 10 to 14 were the lowest for females of any ages studied, they grew the most of any group from 2001 to 2021. And while rates for other female age groups fluctuated during those two decades, suicides among young women ages 15 to 24 years climbed steadily, nearly doubling from 2001 to 2021. “Suicide among youth has definitely received increased attention, but that attention needs to continue because the rates aren’t turning around yet,” says Curtin.
In other data, Curtin has found that the rates of suicides among young people are similar by state throughout the country. “It was pretty compelling to see that for youth, suicides are a nationwide phenomenon and that you can’t tailor prevention to a specific area.”
The newly reported rise in suicide rates reflects a return to previous upward trends, with the highest increases among Black women, who had a 14% increase compared to a 3% increase among white women. Black men also experienced an 11% increased rate of suicide in that time period compared to a 3% increase among white men. In 2021, American Indian or Native American men and women had the highest overall rates of suicide, at 42.6 and 13.8 deaths per 100,000.
While the pandemic provided its own stressors, Curtin says the increasing rates in 2021 could point to the return of old stressors that were suppressed by the unusual circumstances of lockdowns and remote schooling and work, including social media. “There is a little bit of good news in that the rates had been declining,” she says, “but now there are nearly across-the-board increases.”
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