It may be time to change the benchmark for discussion of public health problems in the U.S.
For quite a while, the annual number of fatalities from auto accidents has been a kind of shorthand for health issues that are big and important.
Starting in 2009, though, suicides surpassed deaths from crashes. In 2010, there were about 38,000 suicides compared with about 35,000 deaths from motor vehicle crashes.
In a new analysis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention zeroed in on suicide data for middle-aged people, 35-64, because that's where the increase in suicides has been the most dramatic. (Among younger and older people the rates didn't change much.)
The suicide rate for people 35-64 rose to 17.6 per 100,000 people in 2010 from 13.7 per 100,000 in 1999. That's an increase of 28 percent.
Why are the rates up so much?
The CDC researchers say that possible factors include the recent economic downturn, an increase in drug overdoses and a so-called cohort effect for baby boomers. As teens, baby boomers were more likely to commit suicide than teens of previous generations. It may be that the tendency followed them as they aged.
How people commit suicide has changed, too. Use of firearms and poison rose, but the biggest increase was for suffocation, mostly due to hanging.
"This increasing trend is particularly troubling because a large proportion of suicide attempts by suffocation result in death, suggesting a need for increased public awareness of suicide risk factors and research of potential suicide prevention strategies to reduce suffocation deaths," the CDC researchers wrote.
The findings appear in the latest issue of Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report.