If you need any more proof that mental health disorders are a public health issue, look no further than rising suicide rates over the last decade and a half.
Deaths from suicide have increased 24 percent from 1999 to 2014, according to an analysis of Americans aged 5 and up conducted by researchers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the CDC researchers can't definitively pin down why the rates are increasing (there are multifarious factors that contribute to mental illness and self-harm), the study's results are a huge wakeup call: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
"Suicide is not just a mental health issue -- it is a public health issue, and it is preventable," said Kristin Holland, a behavioral scientist in the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention Surveillance. "There are quite a few programs that have been shown to effectively prevent suicide, and at the CDC we are continuing to evaluate innovative suicide prevention strategies."
The rise in suicide rates touches all racial and ethnic demographic groups with few exceptions, showing that mental health issues and stigma touches everyone.
The Changing Face Of Suicide
The increases were driven mostly by white men and women, but American Indian and Alaskan Native communities had the highest increases in suicide rate percentage over the 15-year period, corroborating previous CDC statistics.
Middle-aged men between 45 to 64 saw the greatest uptick in suicide rates among any male age group, increasing by 43 percent over the last 15 years.
But the rising rate in young women was particularly noteworthy to the authors, according to statistician and contributing researcher Sally Curtin. The number of deaths by suicide for females ages 10 to 14 were relatively low compared to other age groups, but they had the largest rate increase -- a staggering 200 percent -- during 1999 to 2014 compared with the previous time period.
Suicide continues to be a mostly white male phenomenon in the U.S.; white men made up 83 percent of the 33,113 male suicide deaths in 2014. But breaking down suicide rates by race revealed that the American Indian and Alaskan Native population had the largest percentage of increases. AIAN women’s suicide rates increased 89 percent from 1999 to 2014, while rates for AIAN men increased by 38 percent.
White women also had a large increase of 60 percent in suicide rates from 1999 to 2014. White women accounted for 83 percent of the 9,660 women who committed suicide in 2014.
Black men were the only racial and gender group to lower their rate of suicide; it declined 8 percent between 1999 and 2014.
"The gender gap is narrowing for pretty much every group except Asians,” Curtain said. "But even though percentage-wise, the increases have been greater for women, for every race group the numbers are still highest for men."
The increase in suicide rates among different ethnic groups also varies according to age. Suicide rates among both white men and women, for instance, increased the most among the middle-aged, or 45 to 64 years old. Suicide rates for black and Hispanic women also increased for this age demographic. The highest increase among AIAN men -- 60 percent -- was for people ages 25 to 44.
Finally, while the absolute numbers are still small, suicide rates for white children aged 10 to 14 years also sharply increased. It more than tripled for white girls, while it increased 57 percent for white boys.
"The numbers are small, especially relative to the other ages, but the percent increase was large,” said Curtain about the increase in suicide among young children, who are mostly middle schoolers. "Any time you see a big percentage increase like this, you do want to take note of it."
The Reality Of Stigma
Despite alarming trends among specific age, ethnic and gender groups, Curtin says the report is most importantly a comprehensive look at how self-violence is impacting the population as a whole.
"While there has been much recent research on suicide, most studies have focused on particular subgroups, such as non-Hispanic, white middle-aged," Curtin told The Huffington Post. "Our report shows a broader picture, that rates increased almost steadily since 1999, for both males and females, and for all groups under 75 years."
Researchers at the CDC hope the outcomes of the analysis further inform people on the severity of suicide and negative stereotypes.
"Stigma plays an important role in mental health but also in suicide more broadly, as suicide is not simply a result of mental illness," said Holland. "Even when at-risk individuals do seek health care, stigma about suicide can prevent them from disclosing their thoughts about suicide with their medical providers."
For many experts, rising suicide is the byproduct of a society that doesn't address mental illness with compassion or understanding. In order to truly combat rising suicide rates, the stigma surrounding mental health issues -- both self-inflicted and projected by others -- needs to be addressed.
"Because people are afraid to come forward when they have mental health disorders like depression, they tend to suffer in silence," Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford Health Care, told HuffPost. "If it were more accepted, I believe we'd have fewer suicides. We need to talk about it more and support each other more."
Stigma isn't just personally devastating, it can also impede treatment. Research shows negative perceptions often prevent people from seeking professional support. It's crucial to contact a clinician if you or a loved one are experiencing mental illness symptoms, Humphreys stressed.
"It's important to know that help is available," he said. "We know a lot about how to take care of and manage mental health conditions. It's a challenging problem but more so when you deal with it alone. It's better when you reach out and get the support that you need."
In other words, it is essential to treat mental health with the severity and concern it deserves and encourage at-risk individuals to seek help. Their lives may depend on it.