How suicide is talked about in the US

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of the death in the United States, having steadily risen over the past decade. The rise in deaths by suicide spans across many different demographics, with the largest increases among poor, uneducated whites, a trend that reflects a broader phenomenon of expanding despair and desperation. This pattern reveals the high costs to falling behind and losing hope in the United States.

Recently at Brookings, following the screening of the “The S Word,” a documentary about those living after suicide attempts, Senior Fellow Carol Graham, the film director Lisa Klein, and NPR Science Correspondent Jon Hamilton discussed how suicide is talked about in society, the related socioeconomic trends among different demographic groups, and viable solutions to reducing the rates of suicide. Highlights from the discussion are featured below.

How does economics relate to suicide and other premature deaths?

As Graham’s research points to, the increase in premature mortality due to preventable deaths is one of the starkest markers of falling behind and losing hope. During the event, she explained how socioeconomic trends are part of the picture of well-being and happiness.

Demographics of suicide in the U.S.

Whites with less than a college education are more likely to commit suicide than are other demographic groups. But, as the documentary makes clear, suicide affects every demographic. The panelists discussed despair trends, how suicide affects everyone despite race, gender, or class, and how certain cultural norms create barriers to effectively addressing despair and desperation.

How does the factor of connectedness influence suicide rates?

Graham emphasized how connectivity—that is, community, purpose, and close friendships and family—seems to play a significant role in determining well-being and happiness. While filming the documentary, Klein saw repeatedly how the loss of connectivity intensified people’s hopelessness, leading to suicide attempts.

The link between trauma and suicide

The film brings up the link between discrimination of sexual orientation, gender abuse, rape, and other forms of trauma as influential life experiences that lead people to suicide. Graham explained how the way in which trauma affects well-being is not fully understood, but that experts are beginning to explore ways to quantify such factors.

The relationship between drug abuse and suicide

Hamilton raised the issue of drug abuse in the U.S., specifically regarding the opioid crisis, and how it compares to trends in suicide. Premature deaths from drug overdose, like suicide, is an indicator of socioeconomic well-being in areas prone to despair and desperation. Klein and Graham discussed how drug abuse, like suicide, is a means of escaping pain.


Graham and Klein ended the event by discussing what society can change that would clearly make a difference to hopelessness and unhappiness and how suicide can be better addressed.

The full recording is available here.