June 26, 2024

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Something unexpected has been going on with suicide rates over the past half decade.

First, though, some background: It is widely assumed by many people who don’t pay close attention to social science statistics that because African-American life is, as we are so often told, unbearably tragic, the rate at which blacks kill themselves to escape the crushing burden of systemic racism must be very high.

In reality, a basic finding of American social science determined that, among younger people under age 45, while American Indians have horribly high suicide rates and whites, despite all their white privilege, have bad levels, blacks, although they suffer extraordinarily high rates of dying at the hands of one another, have relatively low rates of dying by their own hand.

For most of the 21st century, the black suicide rate was about half the white rate (among people under 45, whom I will concentrate upon in this column).

Understanding that helps explain things like Sailer’s Law of Mass Shootings, which states that if there are more dead than wounded in a mass shooting, the shooter is likely to be nonblack (he stuck around to finish off the wounded because he’d already resolved he was never coming home); but if there are more wounded than dead, the shooter is likely to be black (because the gunman doesn’t hang around because he’s shooting to kill somebody he’s mad at, not to get killed himself).

But the low black suicide rate seems to be changing over the past decade.

The white suicide rate (blue line) rose steadily among those under age 45 during the Deaths of Despair era pointed out in 2015 by economists Angus Deaton and Ann Case. But it seems to have flattened out over the past half decade.

“My guess is that suicide and overdose rates have become correlated, although I’m not sure why.”

In contrast, all other groups seem to have suffered an upturn in suicides around 2016, although the Asian rate has since leveled off.

The CDC’s WONDER database of the causes of death in the U.S. comes with a six-month lag for reasons like suicide, homicide, and traffic fatality to give coroners time to get their verdict right. So I still have only the first 49 weeks of 2023. To estimate the entire year, I multiplied the suicides through the first 49 weeks by 52/49ths.

Comparing the projected suicide rate among people under 45 for 2023 vs. 2015, blacks are up 75 percent, Hispanics up 54 percent, American Indians 38 percent, Asians 9 percent, and non-Hispanic whites up 6 percent.


One possibility is that guns are becoming more abundant. Because guns are a consumer durable, the number of firearms owned by Americans per capita tends to go up relentlessly. In an era when the media has grouped homicides and suicides together under the neologism “gun violence,” it might sound plausible that the rise in the number of guns is driving the rise in the suicide rate.

By way of analogy, back in 1999, 72 percent of homicides were committed with a gun compared to 86 percent in 2023. The latest generation of Americans seem more squeamish about committing murder with knives or fists, but still okay with standing off and shooting somebody as if they were an NPC in a videogame.

After all, guns are a much more certain way of killing yourself than most other methods.

For example, in the late 1990s I organized the rescue of a woman who jumped off the 53-foot-high Madison Street bridge into the Chicago River at rush hour. Was she really trying to kill herself? She certainly started paddling for her life as soon as she hit the cold water as I ran to get the life ring I had noticed years before at the east end of all the Chicago bridges. I would guess that she picked a time (6 p.m.) when there would be thousands of onlookers because she didn’t want to kill herself so much as she just wanted people to notice her pain.

But with a gun…

Yet, it turns out that in 1999 52 percent of suicides were carried out with a firearm compared with 50 percent in 2023. This doesn’t prove that the increasing prevalence of guns isn’t somewhat contributing to the growth in nonwhite suicides, but, clearly, something else is going on as well.

Or, perhaps, the rise in suicide rates among nonwhites during the Great Awokening is related to increased despair due to the zeitgeist constantly telling nonwhites how oppressed they are.

Another possibility is that these trends are tied into murky developments in drugs.

We now have a pretty good picture of the rise in drug addictions in the early 21st century thanks to books by reporter Sam Quinones.

In the 1990s, Purdue Pharmaceuticals began aggressively marketing their Oxycodone opioid pain pills to doctors as being, somehow, nonaddictive. I can recall reading articles in Time and Newsweek in 1997 when I was fighting stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma about how doctors were getting over their outdated prejudice against the new generation of opioid pain pills, which The Science (as we call it now) had recently proved weren’t at all addictive.

I’m not sure I believed those articles (I now presume they were more or less paid for by the Sackler family). But, personally, whether liberating opioids would turn out to be in the long-run best interests of the American public was not, I must confess, of great intellectual interest to me at the moment. I didn’t much care about the long-term effects of opioids because I felt that while the high likelihood of dying in my 30s and leaving a widow and orphans was bad enough, dying in agony was a little too much to ask. So in 1997 I was willing to risk the chance of getting addicted to Oxy since it was likely that if I did, I’d rapidly be dead anyway.

As it turned out, I happened to squeeze into a clinical trial for the first-ever monoclonal antibody, Rituxan. And so here I am and I’ve never had to take an opioid pain pill in my life.

Purdue tended to focus on the more obscure regions of the U.S., ones in which working-class whites had a lot of back pain. When the authorities began cracking down on pill doctors around 2010, the Mexican cartels stepped in to market them black tar heroin. The cartels also focused on places like small-town Kentucky, where nobody would much care if rednecks dropped dead. In contrast, Quinones wrote, the Mexicans avoided selling heroin to urban blacks because they were more violent.

But drug dealers couldn’t resist the lure of the big cities forever. Around 2015, both fentanyl and a revamped version of meth started showing up in urban areas. Shortly afterward, drug overdose deaths started to skyrocket. Looking at what the Centers for Disease Control calls deaths due to “Accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances,” we see a sharp rise in 2016, followed by an explosion in the cursed years of 2020 and 2021.

The good news is that the past two years, 2022–23, have seen some moderation in the growth of overdose deaths relative to the first two of this chaotic decade.

My guess is that suicide and overdose rates have become correlated, although I’m not sure why. It could be that one cause of death is sometimes mistaken for the other by doctors filling in cause-of-death certificates.

Or it could be that addictions to fentanyl and/or meth tend to lead to suicide.

The good news is that deaths of despair among whites seem to be slowing down in the years after Case and Deaton called attention to this massive problem. The bad news is that an era obsessed with Black Lives Matter seems to be getting nonwhite lives ended at a remarkable rate.


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