As increasing numbers of less educated, middle-aged white people die from ‘diseases of despair,’ how should we talk about suicide?

Middle-aged white people in the United States are bucking a global trend as they face an escalation in deaths from suicide, overdose and alcohol related deaths, according to a study from Anne Case and Angus Deaton of Princeton University.

The issue is considerably worse among less educated people, and Case and Deaton argue that it may be tied to the job market, with people accumulating disadvantages in life after having trouble finding a job when they’re young.

White men (who have higher death rates than women) are now about twice as likely as they were in 1999 to die from a “disease of despair,” while women are about four times as likely, according to an article in The Washington Post about the new study.

Whites continue to have a longer life expectancy and lower death rates than African Americans, but the gap is closing. However, death rates for blacks with less education began rising for many age groups in 2010, possibly following the path that whites forged in 1999.

For those of us familiar with the escalating numbers of suicides nationwide, it’s disheartening — but not surprising — to see that other diseases of despair are on the rise as well. Earlier research showed that death rates, including suicides, have risen dramatically among rural white women.

One answer is clearly to focus suicide prevention efforts on rural areas, as Forefront Suicide Prevention has done, and possibly on less educated populations.

Given the scope of the problem, I think it also would help if the media — journalists and creators of fiction — were more careful about how they portray suicides. I recently listened to “S-Town,” a new podcast from Serial and This American Life, and was disheartened that the story’s main plot twist is a suicide. Many people, including the person making the podcast, had clear warnings that the person who died was seriously considering suicide, but they apparently did not make it a priority to help him find effective treatment.

I also saw two movies recently, including “A Man Called Ove,” that used suicide for dramatic effect rather than treating it as the serious public health issue facing our real-world neighbors, families, friends, and colleagues.

And I read about a new television series called “Thirteen Reasons Why” for young adults that centers around figuring out why a teenger killed herself. She left 13 tapes with her reasons. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t have much hope that this fictional plot line will be much more helpful than “S-Town” and “A Man Called Ove” in exploring solutions for the IRL (In Real Life) suicide rates among demographics like Men in the Middle Years (MIMY) as well as youth. (Although my friend and fellow Forefront board member Peggy West shared this helpful list of 13 conversations to have about “13 Reasons Why.”)

We’re facing a public health crisis and need to get serious about how we look at the issue of suicide — in our own lives, in entertainment, and as a society. To change the conversation, let’s change the narrative.

– By Melissa Allison