Why do we take our own lives?

State officials say they’re baffled by a jump in the number of suicides in Minnesota.

The Star Tribune says Minnesota’s suicide rate jumped 29 percent between 2003 and 2011 — twice the national rate of increase.

Of all the public health risks in Minnesota, the rising suicide rate is among the most confounding. Historically, suicide rates tend to rise and fall with economic cycles; rates reached an all-time high during the Great Depression and hit their lowest point in 2000, after the long boom of the 1990s. However, in Minnesota, the suicide rate actually jumped sharply as the economy rebounded after the severe downturn of 2008-2010. The suicide rate is growing fastest among middle-aged adults, mirroring a national trend.

Although murders get more attention, Minnesota now records nearly seven suicides for every homicide; suicide is now the second leading cause of death among Minnesotans aged 15 to 34, after accidents such as car crashes.

That’s nothing new as a casual reading of the obituaries with the “died unexpectedly” code words will attest. And suicide has been the second leading cause of the death of young people in Minnesota for decades, a fact we’ve carefully avoided discussing at the insistence of experts who say doing so will only cause more.

That plan isn’t working.

Because suicide is often an impulsive act, state officials want more information on how people obtain lethal means such as firearms and drugs. One study found that one in four younger people who attempted suicide but survived said they deliberated less than 5 minutes before attempting to kill themselves. Many survivors report instantly regretting their decision moments after they took the decisive step.

“If we’re going to prevent suicides, we need to know the risk factors,” said Dr. Andrew Baker, chief of the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office. “Do we have a lot of untreated depression out there? Do we have people with bipolar [disorder] who are not taking their medications? That will be in the person’s [medical] file.”

“Do we have a lot of untreated depression out there?”


That we’re even still asking that question is baffling itself.

Just last December, the Star Tribune published its assessment of the state’s mental health system, noting that senators in Washington blocked a bill creating mental health crisis teams because it’s not their problem, and that the first mental health care many people get is in the judicial system, and that mental health care in rural Minnesota is a frayed safety net.

Five months before the Star Tribune, MPR News produced its review of the mental health system — its second one in 10 years — and found little changed from our previous look, in which health care experts reported long waits to get proper care, and parents wondered if help would be more available for their children if they had cancer instead of a mental health issue.

The issue of suicide is, indeed, a complex one without simple answers. But the sudden increase in suicide rates is less alarming than the fact too many people were already taking their own lives in the state. Before the latest report, there was already plenty of reason to treat the issue as the serious problem it is.

“We didn’t know the scope of the problem” hasn’t been a good excuse for years.