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Editorial

Sobering news on spiking suicide rates reveal a public health crisis that cannot be ignored

A crisis and emergency call box on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, March 14, 2014. As early as late May, directors are expected to reverse longstanding policy and vote to use toll money and federal and state funds for a suicide barrier on the bridge where an estimated 1,600 people have committed suicide. (Ramin Rahimian/The New York Times)
Ramin Rahimian/New York Times
A crisis and emergency call box on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, March 14, 2014.

National statistics on suicide released this week by the federal government shed light on a burgeoning public health crisis that can no longer be ignored or conveniently cordoned off as someone else’s private tragedy. Suicide rates spiked significantly in 44 states between 1999 and 2016, with significant increases in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

As the Globe’s Felice Freyer reported, the increases exceeded 30 percent in the Bay State, and more than 48 percent in Vermont and New Hampshire, according to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the CDC points to a deepening despair in many communities that goes far beyond the traditional definition of mental illness. In all six New England states, more than half the suicides in 2015 were among people with no known mental health condition, Freyer reported.

Two celebrity suicides in one week also threw this problem into sharp relief. Fashion icon Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, a renowned author, chef, and broadcast star with local ties, both took their own lives. Although celebrities live out at least part of their lives in public, their internal struggles often remain opaque.

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But that can also hold true for anyone. As Danielle Murr, cohost of WAAF’s “Hill-man Morning Show,” tweeted this morning:

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“It’s not just Kate Spade. It’s not just Anthony Bourdain. It’s your friend. Your coworker. Your family member. A complete stranger. It’s someone who struggles, who probably won’t reach out for help. Whether a person is known by one, or everyone — it’s a life, and it’s a loss.”

Causes cited by the CDC are varied, and include opioid and alcohol abuse, relationship problems, and divorce. Rural isolation and economic stresses like job loss also seem to play a role. So does gun ownership. Firearm ownership is common in Vermont, according to Thomas Delaney at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine, and “the literature is getting pretty strong” that easier access to guns is linked to higher suicide rates.

In Massachusetts, middle-aged men from 35 to 65 account for the largest number of suicide deaths, in part because they’re less likely to seek help. State health officials have set up massmen.org and stocked it with tools allowing “working-age men” to share stories and take a self-assessment test.

The breakdown by race highlighted by the CDC also cries out for further study. By far the highest rate of self-inflicted deaths per capita occurs among non-Hispanic whites. At the same time, the rate for Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks also rose in 2015 and 2016.

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These numbers should serve as a warning for states, which administer public health programs, and for the federal government, which funds them. Precision medicine has transformed cancer research. A precision approach to mental and behavioral health, which matches people at risk with treatment targeted to their needs, is a necessary next step in suicide prevention.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or planning self-harm, there are resources available to help:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or 800-273-TALK (8255). In Massachusetts, resources and information can be found at www.masspreventssuicide.org.