A culture of suicide

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Rural Americans are more likely to kill themselves than urban Americans, and men are more likely to kill themselves than women — though women are more likely to consider suicide.

These patterns and more are part of the rich culture of suicide, discussed today in a panel at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (APA) in San Diego. Suicide trends vary dramatically around the world. In developing countries, for example, men tend to die from suicide at higher rates than women. But this is not the case in China, for example, or among the Aguaruna people of the Peruvian Amazon, where — according to Silvia Canetto of Colorado State University, who presented at the APA meeting — suicide is more often seen as a sign of women’s inability to master their emotions. More signs that suicide can be culturally scripted? U.S. government statistics show that white Americans are far more likely to die of suicide than minorities — with death rates about twice as high as those among U.S. blacks, Hispanics, or Asian Americans.

As for the higher suicide rates in rural areas compared to urban areas, James Werth Jr. of Radford University — also presenting at the APA annual meeting — suggests possible causes: first is the relative shortage of mental-health care in U.S. rural areas, which can leave people to struggle alone when they most need help; second is the greater available of lethal means, especially farm chemicals and firearms. This last point is not to be underestimated. There are, in fact, more U.S. firearm deaths caused each year by suicide than by murder. (In 2007, the last year for which figures are available, there were 17,352 suicides by firearm in the U.S., and just 12,632 firearm homicides, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.) But suicide rates in the U.S. are still not higher overall than those in most other developed countries, with more stringent gun-control laws. There appear to be other cultural factors at work.