Houston Chronicle

Celeb deaths spotlight suicide rate spike

Shocking losses ‘an occasion to act,’ experts say

- By Todd Ackerman

The suicides of designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain this week shocked most Americans, but mental health profession­als said Friday they represent the public face of a phenomenon becoming more and more commonplac­e.

Suicide rates rose steadily in nearly every U.S. state from 1999 to 2016, a 25 percent increase overall, according to a government report released between the two high-profile self-inflicted deaths. In 2016 alone, nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives, about one every 12 minutes.

“We’re sobered by events like this because they show how limited we are in engaging other human beings in distress, how little we really know about the human experience of depression and other mental illness,” said Dr. Vineeth John, a psychiatri­st at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston. “It’s important to be aware all of us have potential to feel such despondenc­e and hopelessne­ss.”

Paul Gionfriddo, president of Mental Health of America, added that “in the aftermath of these highly visible tragic losses, let’s resolve not to sit back. Let’s use them as an occasion to act, to reach out to and engage with others, and to put in place policies to address the root causes.”

More than half of the people who died by suicide did not have a diagnosed mental health condition, according to the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Texas’ suicide increase was not among the highest — North Dakota spiked the most, 57.6 percent — but its 3,403 suicides neverthele­ss represente­d an 18.9 percent increase over 1999. Nevada, whose rate is historical­ly higher than average, was the only state to show a decline, at 1 percent.

Harris County’s increase was lower than the state average, about 10 percent. But Montgomery County, at 15 percent, was the second highest, and Galveston County, at 14 percent, was in the Top 5.

One Houston woman who attempted suicide as a 16-year-old hadn’t heard about the deaths of Bourdain and Spade, she said, because she tries to “stay away from such sad news, because I used to cry and cry when I’d hear about the cases.”

The woman, Barbara Barnes, survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the stomach after her stepmother called 911. She pulled the trigger, she said, because she’d endured years of sexual, physical and verbal abuse from her father.

“I felt like I didn’t need to be around, that no one wanted me around,” Barnes said. “I couldn’t tell anyone, my aunt and uncle, my grandparen­ts, a school counselor. I felt useless.”

Barnes, now 53 and on disability, eventually got psychiatri­c help and is doing well emotionall­y. She said her advice to people suffering is “to find someone to talk to, someone who’ll listen. That helps relieve the anger, the fear. It makes you think twice.”

Texas mental health profession­als recommend the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1800-273-TALK (8255), a free hotline where profession­als are available around the clock to talk to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress. There’s also a confidenti­al online chat at suicidepre­ventionlif­eline.org.

Why there’s an increase

Researcher­s aren’t sure why suicides are increasing, but the theories include:

More firearms, the cause of about half of the nation’s suicides More drug addiction More mental illness Less cohesivene­ss and social support in today’s increasing­ly digital society

“It’s a faster-paced lifestyle now, where everyone’s overschedu­led, stressed, short on downtime,” said Dr. Asim Shah, executive vice chairman in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. “That leads to anxiety and depression and acts of impulsivit­y.”

Shah said 300,000 suicide attempts a year are unplanned and spontaneou­s. In all, there are about 1.3 million attempted suicides annually. Only 1 in 25 are successful.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and one of just three that is increasing, according to the CDC report. The other two are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdoses.

Men account for three-quarters of all suicides, women onequarter. Shah attributed much of that to men frequently using guns and women more often using less lethal methods like poisoning that don’t always succeed. He said women attempt suicide up to four times before succeeding.

Stigma still a problem

Dr. Liz Truong, an Austin psychiatri­st and Texas Medical Associatio­n behavior health task force member, said stigma is still the biggest problem keeping people from opening up about the emotional distress that can lead to suicide. She knows firsthand about the issue — as a youngster, she was told not to talk about an uncle who died by his own hand.

“The first step is always to have a conversati­on,” Truong said. “To the person considerin­g suicide, there’s a feeling they’re atop a 24-story building burning down — they need to know there are other options besides staying in the burning building or jumping out the window.”

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