If you’re into statistics, here’s one that’ll make you gasp: More Alabamians kill themselves than kill other people.
It’s grim truth. Bloody, awful truth. Alabama’s homicide rate — 8.4 murders per 100,000 people — is spectacularly high, trailing only Missouri’s and Louisiana’s. We are what we are. But in 2016, nearly twice as many Alabamians killed themselves (788) than were murdered (407), a rarely heard nuance to the state’s data on mortality and crime.
Murders make the front page. Suicides, shrouded in privacy, almost never do.
There’s more: Alabama’s suicide rate of 15.7 percent ranks 24th nationally, is among the highest in the Deep South and is on the rise. In Calhoun County, “It’s a frequent thing,” Sheriff Matthew Wade said Tuesday. Alabama’s not Montana, the United States’ historic suicide-rate leader, but we’re hardly comparable to New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, states where suicide isn’t nearly as endemic.
The question, perhaps unanswerable, is why?
Pat Brown, Calhoun County’s coroner, sees the aftermath, the crime scenes, the deceased, the grief. That played out last month in White Plains, where Anthony Wayne Parker killed his 12-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter and her 20-year-old fiancé before killing himself. Brown’s not a mental-health counselor, but he shares a theory that is prominent among national voices on the causes of suicide.
“The recession turned the tables a lot. People just don’t have as much money as they used to,” he said Tuesday. “With the suicide rate, I think they believe they are doing someone a favor. But it’s also mental illness. When someone kills themselves, they are not in their right mind.”
Trends in suicide data confirm certain stereotypes: It’s more common among whites than blacks, more common among men than women, and too frequent among military veterans, which is why President Trump signed an executive order last month that calls for all new veterans to receive mental-health care for at least a year after they leave the military, beginning in March.
For Alabama, the national trend that’s most troubling is the higher rates of suicide seen in rural areas. From 2001-2015, U.S. suicide rates for rural counties (17.32 per 100,000 people) topped those of medium/small counties (14.86) and large counties (11.92), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Calhoun County’s suicide rate averaged 15.5 people per 100,000 between 2005 and 2013, the Alabama Department of Health reports.
And then there are Alabamians’ guns, a public-health subject dripping in politics and constitutional rights. In 2015, the state Health Department reports, 49.8 percent of U.S. suicides used a firearm. That year in Alabama — which ranks high in terms of legal gun ownership — 70.4 percent of suicides involved a firearm. “The use of a gun,” the state Health Department has written, “almost always guarantees a fatal outcome.”
Last month’s White Plains murder-suicide made statewide headlines because of its sheer awfulness, four dead and families devastated. Likewise, interest was high over an October murder-suicide in Anniston and a similar September case in Jacksonville, where a 70-year-old woman killed her two adult daughters before killing herself. The Star covered those cases because they rose above the newspaper’s usual policy for reporting on suicides. Most media have similar guidelines based on family privacy and the lingering stigma of suicide cases.
Those ethical policies protect families and keep most suicides out of public forums, but they also obscure the hard truths that suicide is common and, in certain regions, on the rise. Hence, the shock of learning that more Alabamians are dying by their own hands than are killed by someone else.
The increase is “absolutely disappointing, but we are trying to figure out how best to approach this cause of death,” said Ashley Foster, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s area director for Alabama and Mississippi. She’s adamant that improving access to mental health care is vital for lowering suicide rates since 90 percent of all suicide victims, she says, have some sort of mental-health issue. Alabama’s old bugaboo — a lack of funding — crops up here, too, since the state ranks last in access to mental-health providers.
“We’re identifying the people who need help and the help is not easy to get,” she says. “It’s just going to take a continued effort in many different areas.”
Until then, we’re stuck with the status quo, too many Alabamians dying unnecessarily at their own hands.
“The downside of this is for the family, of course,” Brown, the coroner, says, “because everybody is left wondering why. Nobody wants to believe that their friend or family member would do that, and conspiracy abounds.
“A lot of times people have different lives that their friends or family don’t know about.”