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Suicide in the home of the brave

Charles Moore, Community Voices • Aug 5, 2018 at 8:15 AM

Suicide in the U.S. received a resurgence in attention lately. This attention is a good thing but I am afraid the public emotions have already waned. Recently, I received an email from an acquaintance who teaches in a small county high school about the suicide of one of their students. These things can hit close to home, hard and unexpected.

I had previously downloaded the suicide information from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network after reading their article in the Johnson City Press. It was time to revisit the data.

A word about the data: the number of all suicides is express “per 100,000” which balances smaller populations against larger populations. Washington County has a suicide rate 15 per 100,000 for 20 suicides in 2016 compared to Tennessee’s rate of 16 per 100,000. There is no comfort in being barely under that state average. Also, its easy to confuse “teen” with “all” ages. I’ve tripped over that fine point several times.

Some of the other counties, however, look really tragic. Clay County, population 7,800, recorded four suicides which translates to 51 suicides per 100,000 people. What really stands out is Clay County had an additional four suicides in 2015. Eight suicides in two years for that small population must be a gut punch.

The numbers are extremely varied across the state. While the grid of death sometimes has zero suicides (which is good) it sometimes has 7, 16, 9, 10 and 10 suicides, for Dickson County (population 50,000), for example, for five years.

Washington County had 20, 16 and 17 suicides for the recently reported three years. I would never have imagined suicide was so prevalent in our county. That’s 53 of our kids, neighbors, parents, friends. Gone. Sullivan County did not fare any better losing 83 from its extended family over the same time period.

Statistics are only an indicator, of course. Teen suicides, all suicides, and homicides are the real thing. And it should bother all of us that even if the location has a large population, the large number of suicides is still not acceptable. The recent celebrity suicides caused a temporary surge in popular concern. It bothers me to see an outpouring of grief and dismay towards celebrity suicide seems to suggest it does not matter about some kid from the hills of Tennessee.

And, it appears, to be getting worse. The number of suicides has doubled in 35 years where the general population has not doubled which causes the “rate per” statewide to creep upward. We are cautioned to remember that reporting of a suicide many years ago was susceptible to family wishes to say otherwise and medical examining compliance to those wishes.

As I grow older, suicides for over-65 aged seems a bit more predictable but no less acceptable. It is easier to become discouraged because of illness, lack of support, and maybe even a general submission to the modern world. In the U.S., old gives way to new and it can be tough on the “old.” Our buying power is down. Our time horizons are shorter. We are not advertising attractive. The years are relentless. Birthdays and summer solstices are mixed blessings. But, this old/new push is part and parcel to our country’s self image. If there was ever a description of the U.S. it would have to include “the new drives out the old.” Is there anything worse than becoming yesterday’s news? I am concerned that now the celebrity suicide news has retreated we’ll go back to not paying much attention to teen suicide and we will care even less about elderly suicide.

We can also imagine there must be some awfully powerful forces at work to cause so many suicides. Tennessee averaged 1,000 per year for the last five years mostly in the younger ages. We are the land of opportunity, land of the free, home of the brave, and yet not even close to being the land of the happy. Which should make us wonder why the “new,” the teenager, or the oldster, might tend to suicide. Can we, will we, ever understand something that revolves around a million variables? Obviously, the question is very difficult and very personal so I imagine we tend to steer away from addressing it. Who wants to reopen old wounds?

These are unpleasant things to think about. I offer no explanations. But I refuse to write off suicides.

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