Suicide Rates:

A little-known piece of data that came up in a lunchtime conversation with colleagues a week ago: Unlike homicides, which are highest among older minors and young adults, suicide rates are lower among teenagers, rise in the 20s, rise again in the 30s, and then remain fairly stable, though with an odd trough in the 60s and something of a bump in the 80s.

My sense is that this will be a surprise to many, since media accounts often tend to focus on suicides among the young. That's understandable, because such suicides seem more tragic (more years of life lost), more preventable (on the theory that they're more likely to be impulsive reactions to shocks, such as a lover's departure, that adults over time get used to), and less understandable (since it's less likely that the suicide is a response to an incurable and painful physical illness, which I suspect suicides among the old are more likely to be). But in fact the young are less prone to suicide than the middle-aged and the old.

In any case, here's the data, from CDC's invaluable WISQARS site:

Age Group

Number of Deaths

Population Crude Rate
00-04 0 19,575,536 0.00
05-09 4 19,960,444 0.02
10-14 260 21,093,745 1.23
15-19 1,513 20,347,666 7.44
20-24 2,497 20,329,966 12.28
25-29 2,423 18,901,904 12.82
30-34 2,623 20,812,587 12.60
35-39 3,141 21,805,533 14.40
40-44 3,710 22,941,937 16.17
45-49 3,473 21,264,091 16.33
50-54 2,835 18,764,692 15.11
55-59 2,186 14,972,666 14.60
60-64 1,432 11,595,687 12.35
65-69 1,197 9,585,105 12.49
70-74 1,266 8,708,218 14.54
75-79 1,231 7,433,706 16.56
80-84 1,028 5,310,113 19.36
85+ 826 4,570,405 18.07

Suicides among women show a somewhat different pattern among the middle-aged and the older, though they're still relatively low among the young:

Age Group Number of Deaths Population Crude Rate
00-04 0 9,566,970 0.00
05-09 1 9,742,000 0.01
10-14 64 10,288,734 0.62
15-19 233 9,879,547 2.36
20-24 345 9,899,299 3.49
25-29 420 9,289,295 4.52
30-34 491 10,316,427 4.76
35-39 657 10,900,923 6.03
40-44 889 11,549,817 7.70
45-49 865 10,787,388 8.02
50-54 647 9,585,588 6.75
55-59 478 7,718,022 6.19
60-64 303 6,076,871 4.99
65-69 222 5,143,790 4.32
70-74 188 4,840,096 3.88
75-79 177 4,357,148 4.06
80-84 144 3,304,789 4.36
85+ 122 3,193,882 3.82

Figures for men alone are not much different from the total ones, because men account for the great majority of suicides.

Craig Oren (mail):
Another reason for focus on the young is that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in this group (after all, there aren't that many other substantial risks to the young) and that tends to catch the public eye.

Incidentally, I never realized the male/female difference was this high. Are women less likely to be socially isolated? to feel that they can't take care of themselves? other possibilities?
8.11.2005 2:13pm
SayUncle (mail) (www):
I'm amazed that there are any suicides of 5-9 year olds.
8.11.2005 2:33pm
Amy Phillips (mail) (www):
The male/female difference isn't for lack of trying. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, but less likely to die from their attempts. I've heard several theories about the discrepancy. The first is that women are more likely to make a suicide attempt as a cry for help, and therefore set it up so that they're likely to be discovered and saved before death ensues. The second is that women are less likely to use messy, highly violent methods like guns because they are more squeamish. Finally, women tend to exhibit more concern than men do for the people they are leaving behind or who will find them (women are much more likely, for example, to leave notes explaining their reasons for killing themselves), and so the theory is that they don't want to leave a mess for someone else to clean up or traumatize the person who finds the body, leading them to use cleaner methods like drug overdoses or poison.

No matter what the reason, it's clear that women are no less likely than men to feel isolated or unable to care for themselves. It's just that their attempts are less successful than men's.
8.11.2005 2:35pm
Fact Check:

The male/female difference isn't for lack of trying. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide, but less likely to die from their attempts.

Any statistics to back that up?
8.11.2005 2:51pm
M (mail):
I'd also long heard that woman are as or more likely to attempt suicide than men (though maybe this was only about younger people- I don't know) but that men were much more likely to be successful, with the main reasoning being that men were vastly more likely to shoot themselves, which works pretty well, while women were much more likely to take pills, which doesn't work that well unless you have the right sort of pills (most people don't) and don't get help for quite a while. (Also, dying from the sort of pills that most people have around is likely to be very unpleasant and drawn out- liver failure being the main cause of death, and this taking several days.) I don't have the statistics either, and this might be an urban legend, but it's what I'd heard for a long time, and it fit with the patern I saw when I worked in a hospital pharmacy (who the patients were that we sent medicine for OD's for in the emergency room) and with whom is more likely to have access and experience with hand guns.
8.11.2005 3:06pm
Craig Oren (mail):
here's a piece backing up Amy Phillips' post:
Thanks for the post.
8.11.2005 3:07pm
"Any statistics to back that up?"

Unfamiliar with Google?

The claim that "women are more likely than men to attempt suicide" is in fact false. Men both attempt suicide and succeed at suicide more often than women.

It is true, however, that men are more likely to actually kill themselves during a suicide attempt. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the male/female suicide ratio is 4:1. Meanwhile, the male/female suicice attempt ratio is just 3:1.
8.11.2005 3:09pm
Sorry, the site I checked printed the ratio backwards on attempts. The actual NIMH report lists the male/female suicide ratio at 4:1 and the male/female suicide attempt ratio is 1:3, so both of Amy Phillips' claims are correct.
8.11.2005 3:15pm
AppSocRes (mail):
High male suicide rates may be a reflection of higher aggressiveness in men -- what nasty feminists used to call testosterone poisoning. Suicide might be regarded as either inner-directed or passive-aggressive aggression. If this is the case, it's not unexpected that the more aggressive sex would have higher suicide rates.

Many commentators have noted that while there are large variations in suicide rates and and in homicide rates across cultures, the variation in the combined rate is much smaller, suggesting that there may be a species-specific, aggregate level of homicidal human aggression that is not enormously affected by culture and that will find an outlet in self-directed or other-directed violence. Further evidence for this may be the observed reduction in suicide rates during wars, although Emile Durkheim explained this as being due to an increase in social solidarity and a corresponding reduction in anomie during wars. (Durkheim argued that anomie -- social disconnection -- was a major explanatory factor for suicide.)
8.11.2005 4:09pm
jallgor (mail):
This website
cites to a 2002 study from the National Center for Health Satistics that says that 3 women attempt suicide for every one man. This seems to jive with the NIMH report noted by "reader."
No idea how reliable these sources are but I took a mental health course in college and I distincly recall learning that women attempt suicide more than men do.
8.11.2005 4:32pm
Splunge (mail):
...though with an odd trough in the 60s

Volokh, it's not a trough in the 60s, it's just a return to the steady baseline after a peak in the late 40s. C'mon, ever hear of a midlife crisis?
8.11.2005 4:33pm
Splunge (mail):
High male suicide rates may be a reflection of higher aggressiveness in men...

Except that the relevant rate (the rate of attempts) is, according to reader the NIMH et al above, higher among women. Oops! Time to reach into the postmodernist sociologist's theoretical grab-bag for another piece of ad hockery...
8.11.2005 4:38pm
RTB Scott (mail) (www):
Normally, the law does not recognize culpability for murder for a 5-9 year old, because they cannot form the intent at that tender age. How then could a 5-9 year old form the intent to commit suicide?
8.11.2005 4:50pm
Abe Delnore (mail):
The prevailing explanation is basically what Amy Phillips wrote. Women who attempt suicide mainly want to communicate about their unhappiness. Therefore they choose low-success methods and do a lot of things that will make things easier on their friends and family. At a subconcious level if not higher, they are sabotaging their own suicide attempts.

Men who attempt suicide, on the other hand, really do want to die. So male attempts are rarer but more likely to succeed. Men choose high-success methods and don't bother about notes, cleanliness, etc., because they know they aren't going to have to deal with those they left behind.

To me, this seems like a reasonable explanation of the statistics.

--Abe Delnore

8.11.2005 4:59pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
Though I think that most of the difference between male and female is due to the females more often using it as a symbolic gesture, I suspect that there is some validity to the suggestion that using drugs is less sure.

A little over a decade ago, the fiance' of one of our male bonding ski group killed herself a little less than a year after he died from a paragliding accident. She did it via a combination of a codine overdose and freezing. The autopsy showed that it was the codine that did it, not the freezing after she passed out. The result was that her life insurance didn't pay out, and we couldn't build the ski hut she had wanted as a memorial for her boyfriend.

We had a long discussion about this later. In the group are a couple of PharmD's (as was the dead boyfriend, who was also a Chiropractor, which gave them the access to the drugs), and three MD's. What was notable was that she apparently knew precisely the dosage to take. Too little, and she wouldn't have ODed. Too much, and she would have thrown it up. She added in hiking up into the (CO) mountains alone in the middle of the winter before taking the codine just to make sure.

One if the MDs, who runs an ER, pointed out that it was not uncommon for suicides by drugs to fail through taking too much of the drug. He treats them all the time - though not nearly as often as those who don't take enough. I would expect that most of those who fail by taking too much were actually trying to kill themselves, whereas some of those who took too little were just crying out for attention.
8.11.2005 6:17pm
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
As to the mid-life crisis theory, I find it interesting that this seems to affect women even more than men. The ratio between the two sexes appears closest here, excluding the time before puberty, somewhere 2/1, and then spreads out again. Wonder if that could be menopausal related?
8.11.2005 6:21pm
"Normally, the law does not recognize culpability for murder for a 5-9 year old, because they cannot form the intent at that tender age. How then could a 5-9 year old form the intent to commit suicide?"

The law doesn't recognize culpability for murder for a 5-9 year old because they cannot appreciate the moral significance of their decision to commit murder, not because they cannot form an intention to kill. When a young child kills, it is still intentional. We don't call it an accident, we just say that they didn't appreciate what they were doing.

A child could similarly intend to kill his or herself, thus fulfilling all the definitional requirements of suicide. Whether we would say that the child appreciated the consequences of his or her action is a different question.
8.11.2005 6:56pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
Suicide rates among young people vary quite substantially by race, with much lower suicide rates among young blacks than young whites--but this is roughly balanced by much higher murder rates. I have seen the argument that rage turned outward becomes murder, and rage turned inward becomes suicide. At least, that makes some sense for young people.

A fair number of suicides in old age, from news clippings that I have collected over the years, seem to be related to being in very poor health. This is not surprising. People with terminal conditions who are great pain or great misery are much more likely to kill themselves.

Back in 1989, when <I>Time</I> magazine did that great piece of antigun propaganda, "Death by Gun," I noticed that a rather surprising number of the gun suicides were older men who had been indicted or charged with child molestation. If they expected to go to prison for many years (where there are no children), they may have decided it was better to plead guilty with a bullet.
8.11.2005 8:17pm
Amy Phillips (mail) (www):
If they expected to go to prison for many years (where there are no children), they may have decided it was better to plead guilty with a bullet.
I don't think the reason an accused child molester would prefer suicide to prison is that there are no children there. More likely, they'd prefer suicide to prison because, in addition to prison being a not-so-nice place to spend one's golden years, most prison inmates hold a special, often violent, contempt for child molesters. I might well kill myself too if the other option was to live out the remainder of my life being beaten and raped on a daily basis.
8.12.2005 10:50am