Suicide Rates Are Increasing Faster in Women Than in Men. We Asked Experts Why

Suicide rates are rising across the country, up 30% since 1999. But a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics highlights an additional dimension to this alarming trend: There’s a more dramatic rise in the number of girls and women taking their own lives than boys and men.

More boys and men die by suicide than girls and women: In 2016, 21 out of every 100,000 U.S. males killed themselves compared to just 6 females. But those numbers are up from 17.7 and 4, respectively, since 2000. That means the suicide rate increased 21% for boys and men–and 50% for girls and women.

As such, there’s a “narrowing in the ratio of male-to-female suicide rates,” the data brief authors write, which “reflects the accelerated increase in female suicide rates compared with male suicide rates.” 

No one knows exactly why the rate of suicide is increasing among women, says M. Dolores Cimini, PhD, psychologist and director of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research at the University of Albany, but there are some theories. For starters, she says, it may be difficult for women to receive the mental health care they need.

“Federal funding for mental health care has been decreasing over time, in addition to more demand for mental health care,” she says. “People are facing waiting lists for mental health services that are becoming longer and longer.”

Busy schedules may also mean women (and men!) find it difficult to make time for mental health care, she adds–not to mention that stigma around asking for help may discourage others from seeking care to begin with.

Women may also be facing challenging societal pressures that put them at risk for suicide, Cimini says, including harassment or being paid less than men. Worries relating to work, money, and housing can all contribute to suicide risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Women are also more likely than men to say their stress levels have risen in the past five years, according to the American Psychological Association. “Women are often in the role of taking care of others, they are juggling work and family life and managing other life stressors,” says Colleen Carr, MPH, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. “We have to be mindful that stress is a risk factor for suicidal behavior.”

Suicide warning signs include talking about harming oneself or wanting to die, feelings of hopelessness or guilt, withdrawal, and an increase in use of alcohol or drugs. “If you are concerned that someone you care about is thinking about suicide, have the difficult conversation and ask them,” Carr says. “It will not put the thought in their head or make them feel worse. It tends to give people relief that the door has been opened to have this candid conversation and get support. Do not judge or try to solve their problem–just listen.”

Speaking this way to a person in distress, Carr continues, “can save lives–regardless of gender.” So can sharing stories of hope. “One thing we can all do is … highlight women who have struggled and gone on to recovery, similar to how we talk about, for example, a breast cancer survivor. Hope and help are not only possible, but are happening every day.”

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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