Skip to main content

Why more Americans are dying of suicide

By Robert Gebbia, Special to CNN
updated 4:35 AM EDT, Thu May 9, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new report shows a 30% increase in the suicide rate among middle-aged Americans
  • Robert Gebbia: There is no simple answer, but factors include joblessness, depression
  • He says many people who die by suicide often have undiagnosed mental illness
  • Gebbia: We must continue to pay for scientific research exploring the causes of suicide

Editor's note: Robert Gebbia is the executive director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

(CNN) -- When the public thinks about suicide, they tend to see it as something that typically affects adolescents and people in later life. But alarmingly, more middle-aged Americans are dying by suicide.

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a nearly 30% increase in the suicide rate among adults 35 to 64, with the most significant increase in those 50 and older. Why the suicide rate is climbing in this age group is a question without a simple answer.

There are many risk factors, including high unemployment rates and a weak economy that has been pervasive at all levels of our society; the widespread abuse of prescription pain medication; the problems experienced by aging veterans of the Vietnam War or the Gulf War; the difficulty in convincing men, in particular, to seek help for physical and mental illnesses; and the realities of the baby boomer generation, a group that has experienced unusually high levels of addiction, suicide attempts and mental illness as young adults.

Robert Gebbia
Robert Gebbia

The CDC report makes it clear that we must continue to fund scientific research exploring the causes of suicide.

It confirms the need to use evidence-based knowledge to expand our research and prevention efforts, in particular, to underserved populations. Suicide prevention programs have typically focused on youth, young adults and the elderly. Now we know we need to do more for those in middle age.

Fortunately, there are measures we can take to prevent suicide.

We know that the majority of people who die by suicide have an underlying and often undiagnosed mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder. Are we doing enough to reduce the stigma associated with talking about, and seeking treatment for, mental health conditions?

President Barack Obama has recently called on the nation to expand efforts to address mental health problems and to eliminate the stigma associated with seeking treatment. He is right.

We know, too, that there can be warning signs before a suicide attempt.

Are we educating health care professionals, teachers, social workers and family members to recognize the signs of serious depression, such as expressions of pessimism and hopelessness, a low mood that does not change, sleeping problems and withdrawal from typical activities?

We understand that suicide can be an impulsive act and that alcoholism, substance abuse and access to lethal means can increase its likelihood.

Are we doing enough to train physicians to recognize the signs of addiction? Are we training emergency room doctors to ask about access to firearms and drugs? Are we educating family members about how to provide safe and supportive environments for those with a mental illness?

Finally, are we talking openly about the reality of living with mental illness and sharing treatment options and approaches that may help those with disorders live productive and fulfilling lives? Are we moving to a place where we can be as comfortable discussing mental illness and its treatment as we are in discussing blood sugar levels related to diabetes or the cholesterol drugs for heart disease?

A world in which mental illness can be addressed openly without embarrassment or fear of discrimination is not beyond reach.

If we pay for the research that can uncover the mysteries of the brain, strive to understand what helps prevent suicide in diverse populations and are committed to helping those at risk receive the treatment they need, we can prevent the losses -- one life at a time.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Gebbia.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT