Paul Andersen: Fair Game

The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

Last week, a “60 Minutes” report on post-traumatic stress disorder featured the sad story of a young combat veteran who shot himself. The man’s death seemed unavoidable as he suffered deeply from his disconnection from society and his seeming inability to cope with civilian life.

I mentioned this to a psychologist friend who later watched the program. He suggested that a suicide like the one featured by “60 Minutes” might not have occurred without the easy availability of guns, which has made suicide a more spontaneous and less thoughtful act.

“If they didn’t have a gun, I’d bet many would not have been successful with suicide,” he said. “A gun requires only a second in which you are suicidal. Other methods require more time, so there’s more time to think about it.”

The most recent statistics show that in 2011, of the 38,364 people in the U.S. who committed suicide, 19,392 used firearms. Consider this the next time you hear the National Rifle Association say that guns don’t kill people.

Looking back a few years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2009, more than 29,000 men took their lives as opposed to 7,800 women. Of that number, more than 6,000 men (45 to 64 years old) ended their lives with firearms, compared with 1,000 women of the same age bracket who shot themselves.

According to Wikipedia, 47 percent of men in the U.S. own guns compared with 13 percent of women. Access to guns for the final solution appears to be a male thing as men are more likely to pull the trigger than women, in large part because they have ready access to that trigger.

What drew me to this morbid statistical search was the recently revised suicide rate for U.S. veterans. Since I am launching a PTSD healing program for veterans this summer in Aspen, I’m paying attention to stats on veterans. As of two weeks ago, instead of 18 suicides per day for vets, the toll climbed to 22 per day – almost one per hour.

What shocked me more was that, according to the CDC, incidents of suicide within the U.S. civilian population have increased at an even faster rate. This trend was cited by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

“38,364 suicide deaths were reported in the U.S. in 2010. This latest rise places suicide again as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Nationally, the suicide rate increased 3.9 percent over 2009 to equal approximately 12.4 suicides per 100,000 people. The rate of suicide has been increasing since 2000. This is the highest rate of suicide in 15 years.”

Here are current stats from the CDC:

• Every 13.7 minutes, someone in the United States dies by suicide.

• Nearly 1 million people make a suicide attempt every year.

• Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

• Most people with mental illness do not die by suicide.

• Men are nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women.

The suicide rate for veterans is climbing more slowly than for civilians, but suicides among vets remain the highest per-capita suicide rate in the U.S. Veterans suffering PTSD often are isolated and inconsolable. They take their lives as a final act of despair, as “60 Minutes” described.

Then what explains the rising suicide rate for civilians? Why does the plunge into the great unknown appear more comforting than the lives we know? That’s a critical question that draws on innumerable reasons – distress over personal financial problems, relationship failures, intractable health issues, employment challenges, clinical depression, etc.

Problems in life are many, but the preferred way out relates directly to what my psychologist friend suggested – that ready access to firearms makes suicide convenient, spontaneous and therefore more prevalent.

Statistics show that today, more and more people are ending their lives. An instantaneous escape from the trials of life is made far easier with a gun.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays in The Aspen Times. He can be reached at