The US suicide rate rose in 2021, reversing a two-year decline

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 800-273-8255 to connect with a trained counselor, or visit


Last year, a landlord stopped by Patrick John’s home in the Salt Lake City area to replace a broken dishwasher. Go he was always a bit shy with people he didn’t know well, but he received his guest with the warmth he was known and loved.

In the process of replacing the dishwasher, it was discovered that mice had been found inside the house, probably due to construction in the area. But for John, a husband and father of four, the disorder became a physical representation of the sense that he was failing his family.

A few years earlier, physical health problems prevented John from working. The change was effected in several ways. That day, his worries turned to fear of eviction or homelessness, and he called his wife, Sabina, in a panic.

John also struggled with depression and anxiety for years and was working hard to overcome his mental health challenges with regular therapy and medication. But her access to therapy was cut off in 2020, when she closed her office to in-person visits amid the Covid-19 pandemic, and in early February 2021, hours after her landlord left, she committed suicide at the age of 32.

“It was everything leading up to that moment that made such a small thing so big,” said Sabina John. “It was a tough day overall, and I think that pushed me over the edge to say, ‘I can’t do this anymore.'”

Patrick John was one of 47,646 people in the US who committed suicide last year, according to a new report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: one death every 11 minutes.

Suicide has long been a growing concern — rates have increased 31 percent over the past 20 years, CDC data shows — but experts were divided on what the pandemic would bring. Isolation and other new stressors can take a toll, for example, but forced change can also help people recover from previous stressors and find solace in a shared crisis.

The decline in suicide rates in 2019 continued into 2020, but the CDC report released Friday shows that 2021 reversed most of that improvement and returned rates to near-record levels of about 14 deaths per 100,000 people.

The pandemic may have introduced new difficulties into our lives, but experts say many of the reasons a person might commit suicide have a common core.

“I can’t help but think there’s an individual difference to you,” said Sarah Brummett, executive director of the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “But taking it a step further, when we are talking about the drivers of suicidal despair, we are talking about pain and the loss of hope that things can get better.”

For some, like John, the road is long and winding before reaching a breaking point. For others it is more straightforward.

“Traditionally, we considered suicide to be linear. First, you start having thoughts, and maybe you practice with trials, and then you actually try. But people can skip these stages,” said Justin Baker, a psychologist and assistant professor at Ohio State University College of Medicine. “It could be someone who has never struggled with suicide before. So universal screening measures would miss that type of person.”

In either case, it’s often just minutes from the time a person decides to take their own life to the actual suicide attempt, experts say. But there is usually a trigger, such as a breakup, financial crisis, violence or other trauma.

“That individual cannot navigate or find an alternative strategy to get out of that situation. They’re overwhelmed and overwhelmed, so they see suicide as a solution to that overwhelming anguish or pain,” Baker said.

But, he said, most people who survive suicide attempts say they didn’t really want to die, they just want help to get over the immediate pain.

While CDC data shows suicides increased from 2020 to 2021, experts say it’s difficult to draw conclusions from one year of change. And rates are relatively stable compared to three years ago.

In recent years, progress has been made on two critical fronts: better options for addressing the immediate crisis and building support for broader mental health resources.

“Suicides didn’t go up as much as many people thought” during the pandemic, in part “because of the efforts of many who were trying to deal with what we feared would happen,” said Doreen Marshall, a psychologist and vice president. President of Mission Engagement with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Also, “there was a growing awareness and learning of people about what mental health is and how to help someone who is struggling,” she said.

Although John often became isolated during difficult times, he recognized the positive effects of talking things out with his therapist and family, and was generous in offering this support to others.

He was an avid gamer and rested in the online gaming community. After his death, a fellow player contacted his wife to share the story of how talking to John – and the compassion and empathy he gave her in times of pain – helped save her life.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has also recently switched to a three-digit number, 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, to make it easier for people to get help.

“The impulse to play is very short, intense. And so the goal is really to get people through those difficult times,” Marshall said. “The shorter number is more accessible for people to remember in that time of crisis.”

According to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, calls to the hotline rose 45% since it went live this summer, compared to the same period a year earlier.

But critical challenges remain.

In 2021, the CDC report shows, the suicide rate for US men was four times higher than for women – a disparity that continues to grow. In 2021 there were about 23 suicide deaths per 100,000 men, compared to about 6 per 100,000 women.

Some consider guns a risk factor for driving.

The new CDC report does not include data on suicide methods or attempts for 2021. But 2020 data show that for every person who died by suicide, there were eight suicide-related hospital visits and 27 suicide attempts. And firearms were used in more than half of the fatal suicides.

Younger women are the most likely to present to an emergency room after a suicide attempt, but older men are the most likely to die from attempted suicide, which is directly related to gun ownership, said Ari Freilich, state policy director for Giffords Law. Center, an arms control group.

“The most at-risk population in the US that will attempt suicide is not the population that will die by suicide,” he said. “Firearms account for so much of that difference.”

Owning a gun doesn’t make a person more likely to feel suicidal, but having it handy in times of crisis can be a “very bad combination,” Brummett said. “We’re really talking about collaborative approaches that create time and distance between me, in a suicidal crisis, and my firearm.”

And with a record year for gun sales in 2020, the risk increases with more guns in more homes.

“Guns are very lethal compared to other common methods in the United States,” Freilich said. The vast majority – 9 out of 10 people – who attempt suicide with a gun die as a result, but the opposite is true for those who try other methods.

“Even if it’s 0% effective in preventing people from trying to kill themselves, replacing the means — access to firearms — would save the most people.”

But mental health struggles, including suicidal ideation, can affect anyone, experts say.

Suicide is the leading cause of premature death in the U.S. overall and is the leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34, according to the CDC.

Between 2020 and 2021, suicide deaths among girls ages 10 to 14 increased more than any other group, followed by teens and young adults ages 15 to 24, according to a new CDC report. And in 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a state of emergency regarding child and adolescent mental health.

“Now that we’ve made it easier to talk about mental health, we need to make sure our infrastructure can handle the additional referrals,” Baker said. he said “Now we have to adapt to be able to absorb all the people who really want to address their mental health.

“In some ways, we’ve created a new problem,” he said.

When John left therapy, Sabina said, it was difficult for him to return when the service was available again, and he often lamented the burden he felt on his family.

But for Sabina it was nothing.

“He really thought I’d be better off without him, but that’s not the case,” she said.

“The struggles that we would go through, I’d rather go through them together than have to fight without him.”

She is proud of the qualities she instilled in their children: curiosity, ambition, humor and compassion. Their oldest daughter talks with her hands like he used to and laughs like hers and smiles at him.

And when the topic of her memory or suicide comes up, it’s certain that Sabina will never go away.

“That was really important to me [the kids] he knew the circumstances and why,” he said. “I didn’t want to hide the fact that he committed suicide. I explained that his father had been ill for a very long time, and that he had been ill for a very long time as well.”

That way, he said, they can remember together by focusing on all the good times, not letting their deaths define them.