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WEDNESDAY, Sept. 13, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- Although older people have the highest suicide rates in the United States, a new study finds suicide attempts by younger adults -- especially those with mental disorders and less education -- are now on the rise.
The findings support a suicide prevention focus on young people who are poorer, "especially those who have made previous suicide attempts and those who have common mood, anxiety and personality disorders," said the study's lead author, Dr. Mark Olfson. He is a professor of psychiatry and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
The suicide rate in the United States has grown in recent years. On average, 121 people die by suicide every day and about 44,000 people kill themselves each year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The highest suicide rates are in people aged 45 to 64, and 85 or older, the foundation reports, and there are an estimated 25 suicide attempts for each suicide.
The new study focused only on suicide attempts to see if they were on the rise or whether certain groups are especially vulnerable, Olfson said. "It is important to understand these trends because attempting suicide is the strongest known risk factor for suicide," he added.
Researchers examined surveys of over 69,000 U.S. adults taken from 2004-2005 and 2012-2013. The findings showed that the percentage of people who reported a recent suicide attempt grew from 0.62 percent in 2004-2005 to 0.79 percent in 2012-2013.
After adjusting their statistics by various factors, the investigators found that the risk of suicide attempts was "significantly higher" among certain groups, including: those aged 21 to 34 (compared to those 65 and up); those with only a high school education (compared to college grads); and those with antisocial, anxiety and depressive disorders (compared to others).
In addition, people with a history of violence were also more likely to try to kill themselves, and prior suicide attempts boosted the risk of suicide attempts the most, according to the report.
Olfson said it's not clear why suicide attempts appear to be on the rise among younger people.
"It is possible that these trends are partially explained by the effects of the recent Great Recession," he said. "Younger adults and adults with less education may have been especially hard hit by the recession in terms of economic and psychological stress. Unemployed adults, those with less education, and adults with lower family incomes were all particularly likely to report a recent suicide attempt."
Dr. J. Michael Bostwick, a professor of psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine who was familiar with the study findings, said it's important to understand that the research doesn't say anything about those who actually kill themselves.
"This study neither tells us anything new about completed suicide nor was it designed to do so," he said.
But the findings suggest that public health efforts should focus on reducing suicidal behavior in people at special risk -- "the young, the relatively impoverished, the people who carry diagnoses characterized by impulsivity, depression or both," Bostwick added.
"While it is possible completed suicide rates could fall as a result of interventions aimed at reducing suicidal behaviors," he said, "the factors contributing to these behaviors are all worthy of being addressed in and of themselves."
The study was published in the Sept. 13 online edition of JAMA Psychiatry.
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SOURCES: Mark Olfson, M.D., MPH, professor of psychiatry and epidemiology, Columbia University Medical Center, New York City; J. Michael Bostwick, M.D., consultant in psychiatry, Mayo Clinic, and professor of psychiatry, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Rochester, Minn.; Sept. 13, 2017, JAMA Psychiatry, online