South Carolina's suicide rate increased more than 38 percent between 1999 and 2016 — a larger jump than any other state in the Southeast, new federal data shows.
The overall suicide rate in South Carolina is about average — this state ranks 23rd in the U.S. for suicide — but this unprecedented growth, along with multiple high-profile suicides this week, offer grim reminders that mental illness and treatment options need more attention.
"This is something we need to study more," said Dr. Jeffery Cluver, deputy chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina. "We just don’t have enough people asking questions about suicide. It’s just not something that’s been funded from a research standpoint nationwide in a long time."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this week that nearly 45,000 Americans committed suicide in 2016. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. and only one of three leading causes that continues to climb.
“It’s a tragedy for families and communities across the country,” said CDC Principal Deputy Director Anne Schuchat, in a press release. “From individuals and communities to employers and health care professionals, everyone can play a role in efforts to help save lives and reverse this troubling rise in suicide.”
The new CDC report shows an average 17.7 people per 100,000 committed suicide in South Carolina between 2014 and 2016. That's up from an average 12.8 people per 100,000 between 1999 and 2001. The change represents a 38.3 percent increase in less than 20 years — a number that experts find troubling.
Every state except Nevada saw suicide rates increase during this period, but South Carolina's rate ranked 10th for growth.
The CDC report also found men in this state are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than women.
Cluver said men are more likely to complete a suicide because they often use guns, but women attempt suicide more often than men.
The CDC report does not break down suicide rates in each state by race, but Dr. Thad Bell, a former diversity officer at MUSC who operates a private practice in North Charleston, said suicide is an issue that needs to be addressed in the black community.
"We think that talking about it is a sign of weakness," Bell said. "It has to be something that we talk about, that we acknowledge. We no longer can push it to the back and say it doesn’t happen in our community."
There is some data that suggests high-profile suicides, such as the deaths of designer Kate Spade and travel chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain this week, might prompt people struggling with mental illness to act on suicidal ideations.
When musician Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, research after his death showed an increase in suicides around the country.
"(His death) was really widely publicized and there was a slight uptick following that," said Cluver, the MUSC doctor. "It was slight. It’s not like hundreds of people start doing it overnight. But there is data that shows it is a possibility."
News coverage surrounding these deaths isn't inherently problematic, he said, but the conversation needs to be framed in a healthy way.
It's important to emphasize that help is available and that suicide isn't an inevitable conclusion for patients suffering from severe mental illness. People struggling with unhealthy thoughts should seek company and avoid isolation.
"Isolation is a big risk factor," Cluver said. "The human brain needs engagement, needs interaction. It doesn’t work well on its own."
The good news, he said, is that "people are talking about it in a healthier way than we ever have."
But more work is needed. Scientists, for example, still don't understand why suicides start to climb when the weather becomes warmer.
While most people assume that suicides peak during the December holidays, that's not the case. Suicide rates during the spring and summer months are higher for both males and females.
Some experts have hypothesized that the seasonal uptick may be related to a link between allergies and depression, but the cause isn't well understood, Cluver said.
"I can’t tell you why it’s increasing," he said. "We need more research. We need more data. We need to understand this stuff better."
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. It is free, confidential and available 24 hours a day.