OPINION — NICK GIER: What’s behind rise of suicide in U.S.

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In 1972, I moved from Denmark to Moscow to start my career at the University of Idaho. I fell into a conversation with a student on campus, and I told her how impressed I was with the Danes and their system of government. She countered with this assertion: “Welfare states cause people to kill themselves more often than other countries.”

At that time the non-socialist Hungarians and the Lithuanians had much higher suicide rates, but, even so, the Danes took their own lives at a rate twice that of the U.S. The Danes are very effective in addressing social problems, so their suicide rate is now 12.8 per 100,000 (Western Europe’s is 13), while the U.S. rate has risen to 15.3 for the same number of Americans.

The worldwide suicide rate has decreased 29 percent since 2000, but the U.S. rate has risen 30 percent since 1999. Boom and bust North Dakota suffered a 58 percent increase in suicides, but Delaware went up only 6 percent. Curiously, Nevada reported no increase at all.

In 2016, among the top 10 states with the highest rates (21-26 per 100,00), seven were Red States, and the lowest rates (5-12) were found in nine Blue States and the District of Columbia. Montana was the highest at 26 per 100,000 and D.C. was lowest with 5. In our own state, 21 of the same number killed themselves.

There are two major reasons for this alarming phenomenon: (1) many white males without a college education are caught in a deadly web of alcohol and drug abuse; and (2) troubled veterans below the age of 35 are taking their own lives at increasingly higher rates. Significantly, all the increase in suicides has been in the white and native population; the rate among Blacks, Hispanics and Asians has been level at 5 per 100,000 since 2000.

A report from the Government Accountability Office shows that the Veterans Affairs Department has done a poor job in addressing military suicides. On average, 20 vets kill themselves every day, which, in 2016, was 45 for every 100,000 Americans.

In 2018, the VA spent only $57,000 of the $6.2 million that was appropriated for a social media campaign to address the issue. The Trump administration has not filled many of the positions that were tasked for this purpose.

Most sociological studies show a correlation between religious belief and low suicide rates. This is especially true in Muslim and South American countries where, contrary to American and European believers, their citizens take the prohibition against taking one’s life seriously.

Utah has the highest rate of church attendance, but it has the fifth highest suicide rate. With some exceptions, other church-going states also have high rates. People from New England and most Blue States are the least religious, and have the lowest rates.

Nearly twice as many Americans commit suicide with a gun than they do to kill others with one. A study done by the Boston University School of Public Health found a strong correlation between gun ownership and suicides. Only 12 percent of those in Hawaii own weapons, and the state’s suicide rate for males is 5 per 100,000, while males in Wyoming with 73 percent gun ownership kill themselves at a rate of 25 for the same number of people.

In 2016, the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research issued a report that compared the results of gun law legislation in Missouri and Connecticut. The researchers found that Connecticut’s background check law resulted in a 15.4 percent drop in suicides. After Missouri repealed a similar law, the number of its citizens taking their lives with a gun rose 16.1 percent.

As a writer for The Economist predicts: “If America gave up its guns, suicides would crash.”

• • •

Nick Gier taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Email: ngier006@gmail.com

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