Show me the money (if you want to learn something about suicide and stigma)

by Thomas Ellis, PsyD, ABPP on September 10, 2012 · 0 comments

in suicide

World Suicide Prevention Day 2012Today, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day. This is potentially a time to reflect and celebrate how far we’ve come.

Would that we could.

Death rates from many of the top killers in this country – AIDS, cancer, heart disease, homicide – have dropped, dramatically in some cases, over the past couple of decades. 

You might assume that suicide, the number 10 leading cause of death, would have shown a similar decline. You would be wrong.

More than 100 people per day die by suicide in the U.S., 37,000 in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available. This translates to a rate of 12.0 deaths per 100,000 population per year. The rate 10 years ago was 11.0. Fifteen years ago it was 11.4. Twenty years ago it was 12.0.

Picking up a pattern here? These number drive suicide researchers like me to distraction.

Have we made no progress? Actually we have – lots. We understand the factors that make certain individuals vulnerable to suicide better than ever, and this knowledge is leading to the development of tailored treatments that show great promise.

But no major cause of death has ever been defeated simply by treating people with the illness. Public health problems like suicide require major artillery aimed at reducing vulnerability before it becomes a problem (think seat belts, one reason why deaths from traffic accidents have decreased in recent decades).

To begin to understand why suicide has remained stubbornly entrenched as one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in this country, consider these facts:

Cause of Death

Deaths/yr (2007)

2010 NIH Research Funding (millions/yr)

Asthma

3,447

$292

HIV/AIDS

11,295

$3,086

Parkinson’s Disease

20,058

$166

Suicide

34,598

$37

Breast cancer

40,970

$741

Diabetes

71,382

$1,052

This table shows several leading causes of death in the U.S. and levels of research funding by the National Institutes of Health. One quickly sees that the funding levels do not match up well with the numbers of lives lost. This becomes more apparent when we display these numbers by dollars per death, as shown in this bar graph:

Federal Research Spending 2007 - NIHIn the words of the famous philosopher, “What’s up with this?”

Lacking an obvious answer, we can only speculate, but the question of stigma must be raised. AIDS once killed more Americans than suicide; now, more than three times more lives are lost to suicide than AIDS. AIDS activists, including many celebrities, have done a remarkable job of combatting the stigma that AIDS sufferers experienced early on, and their work has been rewarded with the funding reflected in these figures.

We are only beginning to see such movement on the suicide front. For example, I recently wrote about the commendable work of Sports Illustrated has done in shining light on mental illness and suicide among elite athletes.

But, as these figures remind us, we have a long, long way to go.

So, no, World Suicide Prevention Day is not about celebrating our gains; to the contrary, it is to remind us that we have work to do. Millions of people in this country, perhaps including you, have suffered the trauma of losing a loved one to suicide. We have an election coming up. Take the opportunity to ask a meaningful question of your elected officials, to wit:

“What’s up with this?”

Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this blog post, check out two of Tom’s other recent posts on SayNoToStigma.com:

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