Comparing Presidents, The Suicide Rate

This post is on suicide rates and how they changed over time since the 1960s when data became available. Data comes from the Statistical Abstract of the United States, but originates with the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. Rates are age adjusted… that is, the population age is standardized to the year 2000 levels.

Before we go on… what affects suicide rates? Well, presumably suicide is a function of despair and/or mental illness. Despair might increase with poverty rates and reduced chances for employment. Similarly, cuts in mental illness treatment is likely to increase despair. Even something as nebulous as feeling the President cares might make a difference… or does it?

Here’s what it looks like.

Here’s a summary….

Assuming fewer suicides are a good thing, Carter comes in first, followed by Clinton, then GHW, and then JFK/LBJ. The remaining administrations saw increases in suicide rates. (Incidentally… a means test looking at whether the average change is different in Democrat versus Republican administrations indicates we should reject the null hypothesis that the changes in suicide rates are the same under both Dems and Reps… the result is just barely significant at the 90% level, having a P-value of 0.10.)

So what’s up with this? Why the poor performance in the Nixon/Ford, Reagan, and GW years? Nixon/Ford – probably some residue of Vietnam, and the tanking of the economy probably didn’t help either. Also, this was a period when many people really didn’t feel the gubmint was on their side. Reagan… probably the largescale homeless dump made a difference. I was living abroad at the time, but the Ex-GF, who was growing up in Baltimore at the time, said the change was pretty evident even in her early teens. I would imagine some number of the formerly institutionalized, or as Reagan once called them, urban campers, eventually committed suicide. If they did so on someone’s front lawn, it might even have caused real damage, driving down property values and whatnot. GW? I’m not sure. Like many series we’ve looked at so far, the positive trend in the Clinton administration halted once GW came to office. Perhaps it is simply a result of the end of our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity. Or perhaps the war in Iraq, the fear of having to see Denny Hastert on the news on a regular basis, and other factors (were there cuts in psychiatric spending?) made a difference.

The surprise for me among the positive Presidents is GHW. Just a guess… it may be that the suicide rates among (current and recently retired) military personnel and their dependents are a not insubstantial part of the suicide rate in general, and Gulf War I’s somewhat antiseptic victory reduced the suicide rate among this group?

Anyone have ideas? Also… anyone have any idea where I can get historical data on homelessness?


Correction… as originally posted, I mentioned my guess that suicide rates might be higher among military personnel and their dependents. I forgot to mention… I think it may also be higher in those recently retired from the military.