America Now Has a ‘Suicide Belt’

July 6, 2016

Imagine that the rate of terrorism deaths in the United States had risen dramatically over the past 15 years.

Imagine that this rise in deaths had been remarkably widespread, affecting almost all identifiable demographic groups.

Imagine if more than 40,000 people a year died from terrorist attacks in this country, rather than a bare handful.

Imagine if terrorism was one of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States.

It’s almost an impossible hypothetical; the impact would simply be too massive to really grasp.

After all, though the impact of terrorist violence on the United States has been negligible since 9/11, we’ve already made massive changes to the basic functions of our system to combat it. We’ve tortured; we’ve jailed people without trial for a decade-and-a-half; we’ve undertaken a system of vast warrantless surveillance; we’ve built an immense, and immensely expensive, infrastructure for combatting terrorism. All in the face of a threat that kills a negligible number of people.

Yet the conditions I outlined above accurately describe another killer, one that attracts far less attention: suicide.

The National Center for Health Statistics recently released a major study, examining the national trends in suicide. The results are grim: The age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased a staggering 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. Increases were seen in every age group except for those 75 and above and in every racial and gender category except for black men. The national rate rose to 13 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014. Contrast that withhomicide, which killed 5.1 Americans per 100,000 in 2013. We instinctively fear the murderer hiding in the bushes, but we are at far greater risk from ourselves.

This stark, disturbing rise in self-harm comes in the context of a world that just keeps getting safer. The violent crime rate in the United States fell dramatically for decades. Recently, the rate has fluctuated, but viewed at any kind of meaningful scale, the decline has been dramatic and meaningful. Meanwhile, modern medicine continues to reduce the fatality rates of disease and accidents, though some causes of death remain stubborn. Even car accident deaths have declined dramatically, as improving car safety technology, stricter enforcement of seatbelt laws, and a nationwide crackdown on driving under the influence have chipped away at this stubbornly high fatality rate.

But suicide operates outside of the simple functional logic of these declines. We have few meaningful options when it comes to stopping someone who is determined to kill themselves.

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