The Suicide Rate has Risen: What Predicts Suicide Ideation?

The Suicide Rate has Risen: What Predicts Suicide Ideation? February 18, 2013

With the news of troubled country music star Mindy McCready’s death from suicide, a month after her baby’s father did the same, some public attention returns—as it does with regularity—to this painful topic. According to a February 13 New York Times article, the suicide rate in the US has climbed by 12 percent since 2003.  Another Times article, this one from February 1, claims a 31 percent increase in the number of suicides in the U.S., from an estimated 80 a day in 1999 to 105 a day in 2010. (A rate need not increase as rapidly as an estimated number, given population growth.) Some of the increase is due, quite likely, to the economic challenges of the past several years.

While suicide is of course incredibly personal, thoughts of suicide are nevertheless predictable, albeit not with great precision. What predicts suicide ideation? (Of course, there can be a significant divide between thinking and doing; I recognize that.) I use data from the nationally-representative New Family Structures Study of 18-39-year-olds to predict which respondents said “yes” when asked:

During the past 12 months, have you ever seriously thought about committing suicide?

Just under seven (7) percent of young-adult Americans responded “yes” to this question, so that’s our baseline. Who said they had thought seriously about suicide in the past year?

  • 11% of unemployed respondents
  • 10% of respondents currently on public assistance
  • 9% of women and 5% of men
  • 25% of respondents who said they had been touched sexually by a parent or adult caregiver
  • 3% of respondents who said they’ve served in the military
  • 4% of currently-married respondents
  • 15% of currently-divorced respondents
  • 11% of currently-cohabiting respondents
  • 25% of respondents who say they drink alcohol “every day or almost every day”
  • 19% of respondents who self-identified as “100% homosexual (gay)”
  • 5% of respondents who self-identified as “100% heterosexual (straight)”
  • 26% of respondents who self-identified as “bisexual, that is, attracted to men and women equally”
  • 5% of whites, 8% of blacks, and 11% of Hispanics
  • 10% of high-school dropouts, 3% of college graduates
  • 25% of respondents who say they view porn “every day or almost every day”
  • 16% of respondents who said they were bullied for “a long time” while growing up
  • 7% of respondents who said they were bullied “occasionally” while growing up

In a more complicated logistic regression model predicting suicide ideation, with a variety of control variables, some of these measures fail to remain significantly associated with suicide ideation. Here’s what a more complex model reveals:

Depression (measured here as a short form of the CES-D index) is a—and perhaps the—key predictor, as we would expect. Religious service attendance exhibits a modest protective effect. Physical health is a powerful predictor of less ideation. While income didn’t matter, reporting greater household debt increases such thoughts. Living in a gay-friendly state predicts less suicide ideation. (I won’t unpack this much here, although I suspect it has something to do with greater mental health resources in more liberal states). Having been molested by a parent or adult caregiver remains detrimental, even after a host of control variables, as would be expected. Oddly enough, so does porn use, especially daily users. I won’t make much of that here, other than to suggest that persons with compulsive sexual behaviors often tend to be psychologically less healthy than those who are not.

All of us know someone who has taken their own life. Lots of us know many, sadly. What it’s more difficult to discern, of course, is just who is thinking about it, and what we can do for them.

Here’s a good resource to have nearby: the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. It states: “By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.”


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