In the wake of the tragic loss of Robin Williams, one of the great comedians of our time, and his suicide, it is important to examine why suicide rates are increasing with the hope that better understanding will improve the chances of saving peoples’ lives.
Sadly, suicide and death from self-inflicted injuries is currently the 14th most common cause of death. According to current increases in suicide rates, some experts believe that in 17 years it will be the 12th most common cause of death. While there are many possible reasons for the increase in suicides, including: psychiatric illness, mood disorders, and substance abuse, one study found an unusual link between altitude and the incidence of suicide.
Researchers from the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, assessed mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and published their findings in the journal High Altitude Medicine & Biology. After examining 2584 counties across the US and suicide rates over twenty years, as well as accounting for various other factors, they found a shocking correlation between suicide and altitude. The higher rates of suicide were found in the counties situated at the highest altitude.
The researchers concluded that “altitude is strongly associated with suicide rates in the United States. This novel finding is not explained by county differences in demographic factors, income, or geographic isolation.” The researchers found no correlation between other forms of death and altitude.
The researchers of the High Altitude Medicine & Biology study hope that additional research may help to determine the exact reason(s) for the increased risk of suicide at higher altitudes although they note the possibility of reduced oxygen, brain hormonal changes, and other possible factors. Of course, altitude is not the only factor to consider or address but greater understanding of the precise biological and biochemical workings behind the increased suicide risk linked to altitude may help save lives. In the meantime, perhaps health care specialists will be able to address the altitude factor by encouraging relocation to communities in lower altitudes, oxygen therapy, and increased monitoring of and assistance with people suffering from depression or at high risk of suicide.
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