In 2020, Suicides Fell

04/22/21 01:09PM EDT

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

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According to new provisional data from the CDC, suicides fell almost 6% in 2020. This is a five-year low and is a rare bright spot in a year marked by bleak health news. (JAMA)

NH: Last year, many news stories predicted the pandemic would cause a country-wide mental health crisis.

And indeed, we reported on numerous surveys that showed Americans were becoming increasingly depressed. (See “Americans Continue to Struggle with Their Mental Health” and “Distress Levels Skyrocket During Pandemic.”) But the CDC’s provisional 2020 death numbers included a surprise: The number of suicides actually declined.

The suicide death rate (suicides per 100,000 people) fell from 14.5 in 2019 to 13.6 in 2020.

That’s a -6% YoY drop and marks the second consecutive year suicides have fallen. (2019 was the first decrease in 13 years.) 

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The CDC has yet to release 2020 death numbers by age, gender, or race. But the 2019 data may give us clues on who’s causing the decline. Two years ago, the biggest fall in suicides was among those ages 55-64 and 65-74 (down -0.8 percentage points (PP) for both). By gender, males declined more than females (-0.4 PP v -0.2 PP). And by race, whites fell the most (-0.4 PP). This suggests the decline is coming from older white men. 

We do have preliminary 2020 data by race from a select few states. In Maryland, Connecticut, and Illinois, the number of suicides decreased for whites but increased for blacks. This is similar to the trend we have seen in opioid deaths. The largest increase in overdoses has been among black Americans. (See “The Opioid Crisis is Looking Worse.”)

So why has the number of suicides been dropping?

The 2019 decrease was attributed to greater public-health emphasis on suicide prevention. But for 2020, the reasons are harder to pinpoint.

Some researchers have shown that the early stages of natural disasters and wars can create a sense of community and belonging in the face of adversity. During the Spanish Flu, WWI, and WWII, the number of suicides temporarily declined.

Another possible explanation is that potentially suicidal people couldn't find time alone from their housemates during lockdowns. Studies show that solitude increases the odds of suicide.  

As for the rest of the report, the results were as expected. The top three killers were heart disease, cancer, and Covid-19. Influenza and pneumonia deaths slightly increased, but that is probably due to early misreporting of Covid-19 deaths.

In all, the number of fatalities increased +17% YoY, in line with our previous estimates of a +15% YoY rise. (See “US Death Rate Rose by 15% in 2020.”)

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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