Alabama suicide rates higher than national average

Published 1:50 pm Monday, June 30, 2008

A new report published by the Alabama Department of Public Health shows the state’s suicide rate is higher than the national average. Officials cite rural geography and a high use of firearms as potential causes behind the high rate, but local officials disagree.

Recently released statistics show the state’s suicide rate was 12.5 per 100,000 people in 2006. The rate is the highest since 2000 and appears to remain above the national average as it has since 1990, a state health agency study showed.

Kelley Parris-Barnes, executive director for West Alabama Metal Heath, said a more likely explanation for higher than normal suicide rates has to do with economic struggles that result in considerable stress.

“I don’t think people realize the struggles rural communities have,” Barnes said.

In a climate where fuel and food costs are skyrocketing, many people are hit hard with the reality of economic hardship. Complicating the matter is the emotional stress of feeling as though one can’t provide for their families. These high stress situations can often be breeding grounds for suicidal thoughts, Barnes said.

In WAMH’s five county coverage area — Choctaw, Greene, Hall, Marengo and Sumter — for the 2006-2007 year they had 13 suicide attempts. In the previous year, 2005-2006, that number was even higher.

The latest Alabama report found that 70 percent of the 573 suicides in 2006 involved firearms, higher than the national percentage of 52 percent involving guns. Barnes said those numbers aren’t reflective of the most common causes for suicide in the local area — cutting and pill overdoses.

“Guns have the potential to be immediately lethal,” Judith Harrington, coordinator for the Alabama Suicide Prevention Task Force, told The Birmingham News in a story Monday. “There are plenty of drug overdoses that are lethal, but you do have a little bit more time.”

Barnes said Alabama’s “gun and hunting culture” is more likely to have an effect on the number of homicides, rather than suicides, in the state.

According to state health statistics, there were 138 more suicides than homicides in 2006. Among other findings: Men are four times more likely to die of suicide than women; white men accounted for 73 percent of the suicides; and elderly white men had a higher rate than other age groups.

But just as with other stats in the report, Barnes said the majority of the people locally who are considered “high-risk” for suicide are women, with few suicide attempts in older men.

Barnes said the key to suicide prevention is to look for telltale signs, such as severe withdrawal for more than three days. If a person exhibits these behaviors, it is always better to get help early, she said.

WAMH has a crisis line to help neutralize these situations, it can be reached at 1-800-239-2901.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.