Notwithstanding several, recent high-profile suicides — including Garden State native and internationally known chef Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer Kate Spade — as well as a federal study showing the rate of self-inflicted death has soared nearly 30 percent in less than a decade, the news is not all bad for New Jersey.
Reports from the state Department of Health show that suicides declined here for the first time since 2011, dropping 13 percent in one year, from 9.7 fatalities per 100,000 people age 10 and older in 2015 to 8.4 in 2016,. Although 687 New Jerseyans took their lives in 2016, that was 102 fewer than did so the year before.
And while the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis showed New Jersey’s overall suicide rate rose 19 percent between 1999 and 2016, it also revealed the state has the second-lowest rate in the nation, after the District of Columbia, and more than 40 percent lower than the national average of 15.4 per 100,000 deaths by suicide.
The CDC’s report came the same week as the suicides of designer Spade and Bourdain, a Leonia native; while family members said Spade was receiving treatment for mental health issues, both deaths were said to come as surprises to those who knew them well. (Bourdain recalled his career, family, and adventures in a 2015 interview with northjersey.com.)
Their deaths — and the new data — unleashed a torrent of news coverage and social media comment about the pervasive nature of suicide and the fact that it can impact even those who are rich and famous, and those who may appear to have perfect, happy lives. While men are far more likely to die by suicide than women — at a ratio of nearly 3 to 1 in New Jersey — the rates are relatively similar across diverse ages, races, and other demographics, the CDC found.
“This is a reminder that no one is immune. These tragic deaths devastate families (nationwide) in all levels of society every 12 minutes,” said state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Shereef Elnahal. “We have to keep up the hard work to make sure mental health care is affordable and accessible so people can get the help they need both before and during a crisis.”
No known mental health problems
Nationwide, nearly 45,000 people took their lives in 2016, the CDC reported; while mental illness is one of several contributing factors, more than half of these victims did not have a known mental health problem. More than four in 10 deaths were attributed, at least in part, to relationship problems and nearly two out of three involved problems with drug or alcohol abuse, or a crisis within the past two weeks.
On Friday the state DOH’s Center for Health Statistics released figures from New Jersey’s Violent Death Reporting System that showed suicide rates aligned with the nationwide trend, but the numbers were lower here and, as of 2016, on the decline. Some 60 percent of those who killed themselves had not been diagnosed with a mental health problem (and more than 80 percent of males), the data showed, and at least one in four disclosed their plans to someone else in advance.
“This is a reminder to take it very seriously when someone tells you they want to kill themselves,” Elnahal said, stressing the need for greater mental health screening and better access to care in general. “Be there for them. Get them help and follow up. Not all suicides are preventable, but many are.”
While suicide has many, often-complex causes, experts agree there are some clear warning signs: isolation, anxiety, feeling trapped, hopeless, in pain, or a burden to others, increased substance use, mood swings or greater anger, sleeping too much or too little, and actively talking about, researching, or seeking ways to die. Individuals who recognize these symptoms in others are encouraged to ask the person if they are suffering or suicidal, listen to their responses, help connect them with assistance, and follow up to see how they are doing.
“Our culture values autonomy and self-sufficiency to such an extreme that even when we, or our loved ones, are hurting, we are reluctant to call the doctor,” said Petros Levounis, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, and chief of service at University Hospital in Newark. “This is true for all medical illness, but when it comes to mental health problems, such as depression, substance use, or anxiety, people are doubly averse to seeking advice from a professional.”
Help is just a phone call or click away
Elnahal urged anyone who is considering suicide, or has a loved one in immediate danger to call 911. New Jersey also has its own 24/7 suicide hotline, New Jersey Hopeline, 1-855-654-6735, which offers treatment referrals, and the DOH has launched a website with suicide prevention information and resources.
Other resources include the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), which also features a website with a chat feature.
To reduce the impact of these deaths, the DOH held a conference in November focused on the “zero suicide” approach, which seeks to make the healthcare system more accountable for these preventable deaths. The 2016 Madison Holleran Suicide Prevention Act, named for a New Jerseyan who killed herself while attending the University of Pennsylvania, requires higher education facilities to have suicide prevention professionals available day and night.
But more remains to be done. The suicide rate among those ageds 10 to 18 is still rising in New Jersey, according to a recent report from the state Department of Children and Families. Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex), a longtime advocate for mental health, has called for more funding, training, and other support for local providers to help reduce the suicide numbers, particularly among teens.
Veterans also are particularly at risk for suicide — in New Jersey and nationwide. Between 2010 and 2014, some 478 current and former military members took their own lives in the Garden State, a suicide rate of 23 per 100,000, according to the DOH.
“The high rate that remains for veterans is particularly alarming,” said Elnahal, a top administrator at the federal Veterans Administration under former President Barack Obama, noting that the state must do more to work with federal and other partners to “improve these tragic rates.”
New Jersey offers a 24-7 peer hotline for veterans — 1-866-838-7654 (VETS-NJ-4) — that offers current and former service members confidential peer counseling and references to mental health professionals.