What the Government Knows About Suicide and Depression That We Are Not Being Told

Bruce Levine, PhD
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For nearly two decades, Big Pharma commercials have falsely told Americans that mental illness is associated with a chemical brain imbalance, but the truth is that depression and suicidality are associated with poverty, unemployment, and mass incarceration. And the truth is that American society has now become so especially oppressive for young people that an embarrassingly large number of American teenagers and young adults are depressed and suicidal.

In November of 2014, the U.S. government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) issued a press release titled “Nearly One in Five Adult Americans Experienced Mental Illness in 2013.” This brief press release provides a snapshot of the number of Americans who are suicidal, depressed, and mentally ill, and it bemoans how many Americans are not in treatment. However, excluded from SAMHSA’s press release—yet included in the lengthy results of SAMHSA’s national survey—are economic, age, gender, and other demographic correlates of serious mental illness, depression, and suicidality (serious suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts). It is these demographic correlates that have political implications.

These lengthy results, for example, include extensive evidence that involvement in the criminal justice system (such as being on parole or probation) is highly correlated with suicidality, depression, and serious mental illness. Yet Americans are not told that preventing unnecessary involvement with the criminal justice system—for example, marijuana legalization and drug use decriminalization—could well prove to be a more powerful antidote to suicidality, depression, and serious mental illness than medical treatment.

Also, the survey results provide extensive evidence that unemployment and poverty are highly associated with suicidality, depression, and serious mental illness. While correlation is not the equivalent of causation, it makes more sense to be further examining variables that actually are associated with suicidality, depression, and serious mental illness rather than focusing on variables such as chemical imbalances which are not even correlates (see AlterNet January 2015). These results beg questions such as: Does unemployment and poverty cause depression, or does depression make it more likely for unemployment and poverty, or are both true?

And the survey results also provide extensive evidence that younger Americans are more depressed than older Americans, that women are more likely to be depressed than men, and that Native Americans and biracial Americans are more likely to be depressed than other ethnic/racial groups. Again, while correlation is not the equivalent of causation, depression obviously cannot cause one to become young, female, or Native American. More rationally, researchers should be asking what is it about American society that is so depressing, especially for young people, women, and Native Americans?

These recent SAMHSA survey results provide a golden opportunity for a scientific and societal shift to reconsider what about American society and culture is resulting in emotional suffering and self-destructive behaviors, especially for certain groups. Below is a summary of some of the key statistics in these buried SAMHSA survey results.

Summary of Buried SAMHSA Survey Results

Involvement with the Criminal Justice System: In 2013, the percentage of American adults with serious suicidal thoughts: 10.7 percent for those on parole or a supervised release from jail in the past 12 months, 9.2 percent among those who were on probation, and 3.9 percent for those not involved in the criminal justice system. The percentage for adults with any mental illness: if on probation was 32.3 percent, if on parole or supervised release, 36.5 percent, double the percentage of adults not involved in the criminal justice system (18.3 percent). The percentage of adults with serious mental illness: if on probation was 9.4 percent, if on parole or supervised release was 13.9 percent, more than triple for those not involved in the criminal justice system (4.1 percent).

Unemployment: Among American adults in 2013, the unemployed were more likely than those who were employed full time: to have serious thoughts of suicide (7.0 vs. 3.0 percent), make suicide plans (2.3 vs. 0.7 percent), or attempt suicide (1.4 vs. 0.3 percent). The percentage of adults with any mental illness: for the unemployed was 22.8 percent, for part-time employed was 20.3 percent, and for full-time employed was 15.4 percent. Among adults with serious mental illness: the percentage for the unemployed was 6.6 percent, for part-time employed was 4.8 percent, and for those full-time employed was 2.7 percent. Among those adults having a major depression episode: the percentage for the unemployed was 9.5 percent, for part-time employed was 7.8 percent, and for full-time employed was 5.3 percent.

Family Income: Among American adults in 2013, serious suicidal thoughts occurred in: 6.6 percent of those from family incomes below the Federal poverty level, 4.7 percent of those with family incomes between 100 and 199 percent of the Federal poverty level, and 3.1 percent of those with annual family incomes at 200 percent or more of the Federal poverty level. Among American adults, the percentage with serious mental illness: for those with a family income that was below the Federal poverty level was 7.7 percent, for those with a family income at 100 to 199 percent of the Federal poverty level was 5.1 percent, and for those with a family income at 200 percent or more of the Federal poverty level was 3.2 percent.

Age: No suicidality results were reported for Americans under 18, however, among American adults having serious suicidal thoughts, the percentage: for those aged 18 to 25 was 7.4 percent, for those aged 26 to 49 was 4.0 percent, and for those aged 50 or older was 2.7 percent. And among adults who made suicide plans in the past year: the percentage for those aged 18 to 25 was 2.5 percent, for those aged 26 to 49 was 1.3 percent, and for those aged 50 or older was 0.6 percent. The percentage of Americans having a major depressive episode in 2013: for those aged 12 to 17 was 10.7 percent, for those aged 18 to 25 was 8.7 percent, for those aged 26 to 49 was 7.6 percent, and for those aged 50 or older was 5.1 percent.

Gender: In 2013, adult women were more likely than adult men to have: any mental illness (22.3 vs. 14.4 percent), a serious mental illness (4.9 vs. 3.5 percent), a major depressive episode (8.1 vs. 5.1 percent), and suicidal thoughts (4.0 vs. 3.8 percent). Among American ages 12 to 17, females were more likely than males to have a major depressive episode (16.2 vs. 5.3 percent) and a major depressive episode with severe impairment (12.0 vs. 3.5 percent).

Ethnicity/Race: In 2013, the percentages of adults aged 18 or older having serious thoughts of suicide in the past year were: 2.9 percent among blacks, 3.3 percent among Asians, 3.6 percent among Hispanics, 4.1 percent among whites, 4.6 percent among Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders, 4.8 percent among American Indians or Alaska Natives, and 7.9 percent among adults reporting two or more races. The percentages of adults with a major depressive episode: were 1.6 percent among Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders, 4.0 percent among Asians, 4.6 percent among blacks, 5.8 percent among Hispanics, 7.3 percent among whites, 8.9 percent among American Indians or Alaska Natives, and 11.4 percent among adults reporting two or more races.

Conclusions

The SAMHSA press release states that among American adults in 2013: 10 million American adults (4.2 percent) experienced a serious mental illness, 15.7 million adults (6.7 percent) experienced a major depressive episode, and states that “major depressive episodes affected approximately one in ten (2.6 million) youth between the ages of 12 to 17.” The press release then laments how many Americans with mental illnesses are not receiving treatment.

While these statistics in the SAMHSA press release are troubling, the devil is in the details of the actual lengthy SAMHSA survey results. These results make clear that suicidality, depression, and mental illness are highly correlated with involvement in the criminal justice system, unemployment, and poverty, and occur in greater frequency among young people, women, and Native Americans.

Shouldn’t researchers be examining American societal and cultural variables that are making so many of us depressed and suicidal? At the very least, don’t we as a society want to know what exactly is making physically healthier teenagers and young adults more depressed than senior citizens?

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24 COMMENTS

  1. Nearly Half Of Black Males, 40 Percent Of White Males Are Arrested By Age 23: Study http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/06/half-of-blacks-arrested-23_n_4549620.html

    Try getting caught up in the American for profit justice system and not get a few suicidal thoughts.

    “Harriet Cleveland’s troubles began with traffic tickets. When she couldn’t pay her fines, she was sentenced to two years’ probation with Judicial Correction Services, which added its own fees. Her debts soon mounted…

    But by that summer her total court costs and fines had soared from hundreds of dollars incurred by the initial tickets to $4,713, including more than a thousand dollars in private-probation fees…

    Read more of the above American police state nightmare: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/get-out-of-jail-inc

    Next Private probation: A judicially sanctioned extortion racket
    http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2014/01/private-probation

    Retired Police Officer: “Revenue Generating” Came First
    Read more at http://thefreethoughtproject.com/retired-police-officer-revenue-generating/

    I don’t know when fighting crime turned into stalking the public for revenue but that’s what it’s all about these days.

    • Copy cat: Stalking the public for money is what Matt Taibi, the Rolling Stones reporter, has written about. The subject also came up around the revenue stream generated by the police department in Ferguson. As for suicidal ideation, something that had flashed across my mind in younger years, and making suicidal plans, something I did leading up to my release from psychiatric incarceration, it is important to keep context in mind, as Bruce does here. Were my suicidal plans part of my “chemical imbalance,” or more likely the result of having your whole world suddenly crashing in on you. Over night having been suddenly converted into an outcaste of society, surely seems to me to be a more plausible explanation. Experts now agree, there were no “chemical imbalances.” As when I was asked leading up to my release, if I felt like hurting myself or others, something inside of me told me not to share my plans with staff. Despite the torture and brain washing, I felt better off trusting myself than the authorities.

  2. Hi Bruce-one of my students conducts interviews for Kerry Ressler’s studies on everyday trauma/PTSD over at the big public hospital in Atlanta. My student, of course, finds that many have experienced traumas-violent deaths of loved ones, crime, etc. She has wondered why they don’t seek treatment. My guess is that those with PTSD are reluctant to self-label. Perhaps, SAMSHA needs to view this as a good thing and start providing services geared toward “community support” or some other positive identity label. If the self-perception literature (Darrel Bem) is to be believed, once a person self-labels, the battle is at least partially lost.

    • In some cases, they probably don’t want to see themselves as “mentally ill,” which I find a very understandable position. Normalizing rather than pathologizing seems to be a much more healing path for trauma victims (which means most of us!) Also, they may have a sense of what “treatment” they will likely receive and have decided it’s not something they want.

      It would be an interesting question to ask.

      —- Steve

      • When you’re a victim of abuse and violence the first thing you need is empathy and validation. I’ve never got any of that from the “professionals” – all they were interested in was to find what was wrong with me and the people I trusted (interestingly the abusive person was off the hook). It was all the members of uneducated masses who came to me on their own volition to provide validation and support and to share information.
        PTSD victims are 100% in their right mind to avoid psychiatry.

        • I agree, I was dealing with a cover up of the sexual abuse of my child, with medical evidence of such eventually handed over by decent nurses. And a cover up of a “bad fix” on a broken bone by my PCP, whose husband had unbeknownst to me at the time, been the “attending physician” at the “bad fix.”

          I was unaware at the time that the “dirty little secret of the two original educated professions” was that the psychiatric industry was, and still is, actually being given validation by the mainstream medical community and religions, not to mention likely the government, because they have historically and still are today actually in the business of covering up child abuse for the mainstream religions and easily recognized iatrogenesis for the incompetent doctors.

          How sad that 85% of “schizophrenics” are actually people dealing with psychiatric cover ups of “adverse childhood experinces,” who likely had the known adverse effects of the central symptoms of neuroleptic induced anticholingeric intoxication misdiagnosed as “schizophrenia,” and are being made ungodly sick with these toxic drugs. And, how sad that these abuses, especially against children, are still being misdiagnosed as ADHD and depression. And that the adverse effects of the drugs claimed to “cure” these supposed “mental illnesses” are now known to cause the “mania” associated with bipolar, the other supposed “major mental illness.”

          I agree with Berenzin to a certain level, one does get disgusted when one’s personal belief in a decent society is proven to be wrong. It now seems those who are innately inclined to abuse other humans have gone into the “helping” professions, to immediately gain respectability they do not deserve.

  3. I would think that all the all of the incidents about which I’ve been reading about in the news this past year, of family members killing family members–kids killing parents, parents killing kids, siblings killing abusive siblings–that is going on in the news might provide pretty strong clues regarding decline in mental clarity and emotional stability, along with a rise in suicide. Families are turning on each other, whereas we used to rely on our families for support. At least, that was the idea. Depression, fear, and helpless rage would seem like a normal state of being, considering the world in which we live.

  4. “Also, the survey results provide extensive evidence that unemployment and poverty are highly associated with suicidality, depression, and serious mental illness.”
    I love how they are re-discovering the wheel with these studies and reports. How delusional and insane has the society become that any of this is news?

    “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti

  5. Like the child who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes, allow me to point out that psychiatry is a sham of the lowest order. Psychiatry fuels the myth that mental illness is increasing, and Big Pharma funds the deceptive “research” that NAMI and SAMHSA publish. What better way to push psychotropic drugs than to convince entire populations that they are mentally ill? People in third world countries who endure the horrors of war, tsunamis, earthquakes and typhoons recover more quickly than the victims of phony 1st world “diseases.” The therapeutic state of America thrives on convincing people that they are ill, and then drugging them into real iatrogenic illness. Which population is easier to control, a population that is sickly and in fear of everything (including the government) or a population that understands that life is meant to be challenging (and that the government should fear the people)? If anyone wants to read a good book on this topic, check out Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us (http://crazylikeus.com/). If psychiatry can’t convince people that they are sick and must depend on Big Pharma to “care” for them, it will do all in its power to coerce them into submission. Slay the Dragon of Psychiatry.

  6. I find it hard to believe that most people didn’t see this as the logical result. Money can’t buy happiness, but it certainly can present you with a bevy of distraction options. Also, you are talking about ending a life. I don’t know why so many people think this decision is just a roll of the dice. No matter what, ending your life is still final… That means that the most likely people to attempt suicide are people who feel trapped. There’s no way forward, and no way back. They just see an endless series of days and nights merely attempting to survive and never getting ahead. The only surprise for me was that women have finally surpassed men.

  7. woops, there ya go: saying mental distress has causes and we need to look at them if we want to reduce the incidence of distress.

    No No NO – distract (diagnose with a mental illness label), and pacify (prozac et al), that’s the ticket. Or it is if you don’t want to challange the power structures of society or stop Big Pharma making huge profits.

    • I’ve just read an article on AIDS denialism – the crackpot theory that AIDS is not caused by HIV. The article said that denialists have inspired people to refuse effective treatment and that people have died because of this.

      Psychiatry is in the buisiness of social denailism. It denies the social, and perhaps preventable and sometimes treatable, causes of distress. This results in people suffering unecersarily and some of them die.

      Yesterday I talked to a freind who was offered a course for people who hear voices and have visions. The course was a Mickey Mouse one: all coping strategies and relaxation techniques. He has heard voices for at least ten years. Mainly he knows how to cope and he sometimes goes to Yoga and often goes on long cycle rides, so he knows how to relax and distract. He says the voices are not much bother except when things are stressing him out. But the services do not want to talk about the things that stress him out or the traumas that made it even more difficult than most of us to cope with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The services are offering about the same as AIDS denialist are offering – things that are not much more than faith healing.

      He tried to kill himself last year. If the serives had helped him with the things that drove him mad ten years ago then he would have got a life together by now.

      I’m angry.

  8. More on how the profiteers in the US “justice” system drive people to suicide from Human Rights Watch.

    “Many are guilty only of minor traffic violations like driving without proof of insurance or seatbelt violations. While these offenses often carry no real threat of jail time in and of themselves, a probationer who fails to keep up with payments on their fines, court costs, and company fees can be locked up.”

    http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/02/05/us-profit-probation-tramples-rights-poor

    The Police states of America have about four percent of the world’s population but has over one quarter (25%) of world’s prison population. An American citizen has a six times greater chance of being incarcerated than those in most other countries.

    • There’s now a probe going into the Ferguson police department on that issue. There was also a good segment on Democracy Now! recently talking about de facto re-institution of debtors prisons and how people of colour are targeted disproportionally.