There’s probably no eerier, more terrifying feeling than entering a silent room to check on someone’s welfare and finding them dead by their own hand. Imagine discovering a lifeless body with its face frozen in death, the eyes staring but seeing nothing. It’s the stuff of nightmares and horror movies—but all too real.
At one time, such an event might have seemed like a freak occurrence unlikely to effect the average person’s life, but that’s not the case anymore. Suicide is an epidemic in America that is now at a 30-year high, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death in the U.S., behind motor-vehicle accidents.
The recent tragic deaths of fashion icon Kate Spade, 55, and travel and food guru Anthony Bourdain, 61, catapulted suicide into the nation’s consciousness. People from all strata of society—and especially the LGBTQ community—are at risk.
Most of what is known about suicide in the LGBTQ community comes from the research of youth issues. The American Association of Suicidology’s latest statistical analysis of 2016’s 44,965 victims contains no data on sexual orientation or gender identity. The various agencies studying suicidal behavior in LGBTQ youth maintain that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. LGB youth are three times more likely to seriously consider suicide (and five times more likely to attempt it) than their heterosexual counterparts. A study of transgender people revealed that 40 percent had made a suicide attempt, and that 92 percent of those people tried to take their own lives before age 25.
Researchers, psychologists, and others involved in mental-health care believe that LGBTQ youth are more susceptible to suicide because of bullying that includes verbal and physical abuse, little support from family and friends, low self-esteem, and the stress associated with minority status. As a result, LGBTQ youth are more likely to turn to alcohol and other drugs to tackle feelings of chronic hopelessness and worthlessness, which only exacerbates the underlying problems. Older LGBTQ people who remember experiencing the same problems in their youth may still suffer the consequences as adults.
On June 7, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the 2016 statistics reflected a 30-percent increase in suicides among Americans ages 10 or older since 1999. The release of the report announcing the spike ironically coincided with the deaths of Spade on June 5 and Bourdain on June 8.
The 2016 analysis showed that white men ages 45 to 64 made up the largest percentage of suicides, and has shown the largest increase. Of the 44,965 deaths, the breakdown was as follows: males, 34,727; females, 10,238; whites, 40,164; non-whites, 4,801; adults over age 65, 8,204; adults ages 45 to 64, 16,196; and people ages 15 to 24, 5,723.
California had the most suicides in 2016 with 4,294, followed by Texas with 3,488 and Florida with 3,143. The District of Columbia, Vermont, and Delaware had the fewest suicides, with 40, 118, and 119, respectively. Regionally, the South recorded the most suicides with 17,593, and the Northeast had the fewest with 6,078. The West recorded 11,516, and the Midwest had 9,778.
At 51 percent, firearms represented the most common method of suicide in 2016, followed by hanging and other suffocation at 26 percent, and poisoning at 15 percent. Suicides by hanging and suffocation showed a dramatic increase of 52 percent compared to other methods in a study of statistics from 1999 to 2010, according to a U.S. National Library of Medicine report. Suicides using firearms remained level during those years, while poisoning increased by 19 percent.
Both Spade and Bourdain committed suicide by hanging, and their deaths could spark an increase in the suicide rate if trends from previous years continue. Crisis-prevention hotlines are already reporting more calls.
A study by Columbia University noted that when actor Robin Williams, 63, hanged himself in 2004, suicides rose by 10 percent in four months. A similar increase was noted in 1962 when actress Marilyn Monroe, 36, died from barbiturate poisoning. The phenomenon is known as “suicide contagion,” believed to be the result of massive media coverage of celebrity suicides. Most U.S. newspapers and other media abstain from publishing news about suicides unless it involves celebrities or politicians, at least in part because of the danger of copycat suicides.
In the days following media coverage of suicides, people who are thinking about suicide may be more likely to act on the impulses. Research by mental-health professionals shows that suicide victims often show no signs of despair, and have no history of mental illness. The suicides of both Spade and Bourdain took family and friends by surprise.
LGBTQ youth are arguably the most vulnerable group because they are less likely to be aware of resources, or they don’t have the ability to access them. Youth who lack strong support from family, peers, or adults such as school officials are particularly at risk. Research indicates that crisis-prevention services such as hotlines can be effective interventions for youth in trouble.
Any youth experiencing suicidal thoughts can call The Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. Anyone who is aware of a youth in crisis can also call Trevor Project counselors for advice. A compassionate, trained counselor will answer, “What’s going on?”
Adults who are in crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Adults concerned about other adults can also speak to the counselors.
This article appears in the July 2018 edition of OutSmart magazine.