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New Mexico’s suicide rate is highest in US

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s record number of suicides in 2018 nudged it to the top of the nation in suicide rates.

The 535 reported suicides in the most recent year for which nationwide data is available include increases in more than half of the age categories, in both male and female populations, and across other demographics, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. The figures track New Mexico residents who died in the state.

Rates of suicide in the youngest age group jumped significantly, mirroring a nationwide trend.

In 2017, New Mexico was fourth in the nation with 491 suicides, or a rate of 23.5 for 100,000 residents, according to official data released annually by the American Association of Suicidology. The state was behind Montana, Wyoming and Alaska.

Then in 2018, after a 9% increase in the number of suicides – from 491 to 535 – the state reached the top of the list with a rate of 25.6 suicides per 100,000 people. The American Association of Suicidology reported one more suicide in New Mexico than the state’s Department of Health.

According to the association’s data, Wyoming – with 147 suicides – came in a close second in 2018 with 25.4 suicides per 100,000 people. The national average was 14.8 suicides per 100,000.

The other top contenders, all Western states with low populations, saw pretty substantial drops from 2017 to 2018. Montana saw 46 fewer suicides, Wyoming saw 10 fewer, and Alaska saw 16 fewer.

This is in contrast to New Mexico, which had its highest number of suicides since the state began consistently keeping track in 1999.

By the numbers

In 2018, the number of suicides rose in five of the nine age groups, according to data provided by the DOH. Three-quarters of the New Mexico residents who killed themselves were male.

According to the Department of Health:

⋄ The number of women who died by suicide increased 22% from 109 in 2017 to 133 in 2018.

⋄ The number of men who died by suicide increased 5% from 382 in 2017 to 402 in 2018.

⋄ For youth ages 5 to 14 the rate increased 88% from 2.5 deaths per 100,000 to 4.7. However, the raw numbers remain small – there were seven suicides in this age group in 2017 and 13 in 2018.

⋄ For people ages 25 to 34, the rate increased 25% from 29.6 to 37.9 deaths per 100,000. In 2017 there were 84 suicides in this age group, and there were 108 in 2018.

⋄ For people ages 35 to 44, the rate increased 13% from 27.1 to 30.6 deaths per 100,000. In 2017 there were 67 suicides, and there were 77 in 2018.

⋄ For people ages 55 to 64, the rate increased 49% from 19.5 per 100,000 to 29.1. There were 54 suicides in 2017 and 80 in 2018.

⋄ For people ages 65 to 74, the rate increased 9% from 29.7 to 32.5 deaths per 100,000. There were 63 suicides in 2017 and 71 in 2018.

⋄ The four remaining age groups had a decrease in the rate of suicides.

David Morgan, a spokesman for the DOH, also noted that there was a substantial increase in the number of suicides among Native Americans. In 2017 there were 47 deaths – a rate of 24.6 per 100,000 – and in 2018 there were 67 – a rate of 37.9 per 100,000. And the rates in the Northwest region also increased, rising from 25.9 deaths per 100,000 to 34.5, or from 59 to 78 deaths.

Morgan provided data that showed that every category defining the cause of death – fall, firearm, poisoning, suffocation – increased but made up the same percentage as the year before. For instance, in both 2017 and 2018 firearms were used in a little more than half of the suicides, suffocation in just under 30% and poisoning in 13 to 14% of deaths. Falls made up less than 2% of suicides.

Limited access

As for why New Mexico has such a high rate of suicide, Morgan said studies have found Adverse Childhood Experiences are associated with depression and higher rates of self-harm and suicide as well as limited access to behavioral health services.

New Mexico has a high rate of Adverse Childhood Experiences, and services can be hard to come by, especially in the more rural parts of the state.

Another factor that has been studied is the effect on suicide of high rates of gun ownership and relatively lax firearms laws. In 2017, 261 people killed themselves with a firearm; in 2018, 280 did.

Last fall the Department of Health reestablished a coalition of advocates and organizations who will meet and discuss how to address suicide.

Morgan said the first meeting of the New Mexico Suicide Prevention Coalition occurred in October 2019 and included about 60 people from across the state from state and county agencies, nonprofits, higher education, behavioral health groups and more. He said they discussed suicide awareness, prevention, intervention, post-vention, crisis services and surveillance.

Morgan said the DOH is also working with emergency departments in various hospitals to implement a “secondary suicide prevention program” to provide treatment and support for patients who can be discharged and go home.

“The intervention includes a safety intervention plan that is patient centered, includes discussion on limiting access to lethal means, connects the patient to a crisis response center, and provides a quick referral to a behavioral health clinician,” Morgan wrote in an email. “The intervention also provides support post discharge in the form of caring phone calls and/or letters to express concern to the suicide attempt survivor.”

Editor’s note: Following the publication of this article the New Mexico Department of Health reached out to say their preferred method for comparing suicide among different populations is to use age-adjusted rates, rather than the crude rates that were analyzed by the American Association of Suicidology. Looking at age-adjusted death rates in 2018, New Mexico had the second highest rate of suicide, 24.95, behind Wyoming, which had 25.23 deaths per 100,000 residents.

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