In Georgia, suicides take many more lives than homicides each year.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. and one of three leading causes that are on the rise, according to a new report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Those findings, released Thursday, came into sharp focus in a week that brought the deaths of both fashion designer Kate Spade and author/chef Anthony Bourdain. Spade, 55, was found Tuesday in her Manhattan home, where she died of an apparent suicide. Bourdain, 61, was discovered unresponsive at a hotel in France on Friday. His death was also reported as a suicide.
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While news of these high-profile deaths has brought more attention to the growing concern of suicide nationwide, Georgia has also had its share of reported suicides in recent weeks. In late April, a man died by suicide at a bridge on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. A few weeks later, a woman died by suicide outside a Walmart in South Fulton. In late May, the widely reported death of CDC researcher Timothy Cunningham was ruled suicide by drowning.
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"Suicide in Georgia is the 11th leading cause of death," said Chris Owens, area director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Georgia, which is comprised of about 300 volunteers across the state, the majority of whom are survivors of suicide loss. Nearly twice as many people in Georgia die by suicide each year than by homicide. "Georgia mirrors what is happening nationally," Owens said.
From 1999 to 2016, suicide rates increased in almost every state in the country, according to the CDC report. Georgia’s 16.2 percent increase during the time period is on the low end of the spectrum when compared to the 25 states that saw suicide rate increases of nearly 30 percent, but it is still considered a significant increase.
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While suicide has long been associated with mental illness, the CDC report found that 54 percent of reported suicide deaths since 1999 could not be traced back to a mental health diagnosis.
“There may be a lot of people who would meet the diagnostic criteria, but who are not being diagnosed,” said Erin Tone, associate professor and associate chair in the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University. “It could be that we are seeing more suicide among people whose symptoms don’t fit neatly into diagnostic categories and yet they are experiencing a lot of distress.”
Spade had suffered from anxiety and depression but was actively seeking treatment, said her husband in a statement. The couple was also living apart. Bourdain had been open about his past drug addiction but recently said in an interview with the Guardian that he was in the best shape of his life. Cunningham reportedly had "personal struggles" and battled a chronic illness.
These are all risk factors that the CDC identified as contributing to the rise in suicide deaths, but a recent review from leading researchers of suicide concluded that things are more complex, Tone said. Risk factors such as social isolation, access to lethal tools, and high stress may help to predict suicide, but sometimes they don’t. “We have a long way to go to figure this out,” Tone said.
Some research suggests people who attempt or commit suicide have generally developed a comfort with the idea of pain or death. For those who may have a shifting threshold for tolerating pain or death, a stressful event or risk factor such as abuse or job loss can increase the risk of suicide in ways that it might not have otherwise. “It is getting at some important reasons why most people who are depressed don’t attempt or commit suicide,” Tone said.
When it comes to risk prevention, one of the most important things to do is remove access to means. It is also important to give people a sense of connection to others and find ways to help them ride out the tough times. “Distress is often time limited,” Tone said. “If you can get people to hang on, circumstances change, feelings decline and something good comes along they didn’t expect.”
If there is something we can take away from these high-profile suicide deaths, it may be that we learn just how vulnerable we all can feel. “I wonder if people might begin to realize that even the people who seem to have it all together and have everything they want may experience profound pain,” said Tone. “Life has a lot of suffering in it, and no one is immune to that.”
If you are worried someone may be at risk for suicide, Chris Owens, area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Georgia, offers the following suggestions:
1. Speak to the individual in private.
2. Express concern and caring. Listen but avoid trying to fix the problem or expressing the value of life.
3. Offer support. Sometimes suicidal thoughts are temporary and just feeling supported at that time can decrease the risk.
4. Ask them directly about suicide. It is a myth that by asking about it, you are planting it in their minds.
5. If they do not want to reach out to suicide prevention resources, you can call or text for them.
Resources for suicide prevention:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Text Line: 741741
Georgia Crisis and Access Line: 1-800-715-4225