The firearms suicide rate among Black teenagers surpassed the rate for white teenagers for the first time on record in 2022, according to a July data analysis by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.
Suicide has long been a tricky topic to cover. Sensationalized and poor coverage of suicide raises the risk of a contagion effect — other people being inspired to take their lives. Studies have found that copycat suicides rise following coverage of a single suicide incident, especially involving a celebrity.
But the problem, especially how it is tied to firearms, needs to be covered. When done carefully and thoughtfully, good journalism can dispel myths, help improve public awareness and understanding of the complexities of suicide and even encourage people to seek help.
Recent CDC data has revealed that roughly half of suicides nationwide are by firearms. Forty percent of respondents from a Pew Research Center June 2021 survey said they lived in a household that had guns; 30% said they owned a gun.
During a pandemic where a record number of Americans reported heightened suicidal ideation and other severe mental stress, those data are significant, at least in part, because gun sales have also surged during the past couple of years.
A glance at research
Gun ownership heightens risks of suicide by firearm, a series of studies over the years have concluded. Among the largest and most recent of them is a Stanford University study published in June 2020 in the New England Journal of Medicine. It concluded that men who owned guns were eight times more likely to die than men who didn’t of a self-inflicted gunshot and that the rate of suicide by firearm among women who owned hand guns was 35 times the rate of women who didn’t. Tracking risks from day one of a gun purchase, the analysis examined 26 million Californians across 12 years ending in 2016.
A commentary by a Boston emergency room physician published in the JAMA Network Open cited a 59% increase in firearm suicides by teens between 2010 and 2019, outpacing a 29% spike in other forms of suicide during that period. Teen males used a firearm 51% of the time and teen females 25% of the time.
The pandemic’s assorted pressures have caused a spike in suicidal thoughts among subsets of people, including older Americans whose risk for suicidal ideation — and suicide itself — is linked to some of the particularities of aging.
According to a March 2021 analysis by geriatric researchers at Adelphi and Columbia Universities, 28% of U.S. adults who were at least 65 years old, or 14.7 million people, resided alone. That tally of older people living solo — and often enduring the gut punches of isolation and loneliness — only went up from there. Approximately 44% of women ages 75 and older lived alone.
There’s a kind of pile-on effect at play, researchers suggest, as societal and health problems circle in and out of each other. Social isolation can and does often worsen chronic illness, which disproportionately besets older people. The CDC calculates 85% of those age 65 and older have at least one chronic illness; 60% have two or more.
Men 75 and older had the highest risk for suicide, according to the CDC’s most recent data, with 39.9 such suicides per 100,000 Americans. The comparable figure for women in that age group was 4.3 per 100,000. For those ages 65 through 74, the respective rates were 26.4 and 5.9. (This 2018 analysis in Clinical Interventions in Aging put the rate for white men who were 65 and older at 48.7 per 100,000.)
The Department of Health and Human Services is sponsoring a seminar for reporters on covering suicide on Tuesday, in what the lead organizer described as an effort by HHS media officials to engage with journalists in new ways.
Mark Weber, the deputy assistant secretary for public affairs, said that media officials often interact with reporters in what he called “ATM transactions” – communicating only when one needs something from the other. Continue reading