Happiest places have highest suicide rates. Why?

Thanks to my pal Deb Isserlis for bringing some research to my attention about the curious correlation between happiness and suicide. Turns out that comparing the list of happiest states and those that have the highest suicide rates produces a weird correlation that happy people are more likely to commit suicide.

Or is that what’s going on?

Turns out that it would be more accurate to describe the situation as the states with the highest suicide rate are also those with the happiest overall population because it’s unlikely that those happy folk are the ones committing suicide. Here it is mapped out:

suicide rate by state map

So what causes those depressed people in happy states to take the ultimate way out of their lives? There are a lot of different theories. Deb’s article is from GE’s Brain.mic site, quoting University of Utah neuroscientist Perry Renshaw, who believes “altitude has an impact on our brain chemistry, specifically that it changes the levels of serotonin and dopamine, two key chemicals in the brain that help regulate our feelings of happiness.”

Altitude? Well, the “suicide belt” does overlay perfectly on the Rocky Mountains, as you can see above.

Then again, this also means that the Rockies are the best places to live too. Happy folk everywhere.

But maybe it’s not the altitude. Maybe it’s depressing to live around so many happy people when you aren’t very happy yourself, as suggested by The New York Times:

“Dr. Wu noted that other studies have found that people react differently to low income or unemployment depending on how common it is in their community. “If a lot more other people around them are unemployed, it doesn’t seem so devastating.’’

There are other theories too. In Livescience, UNLV sociologist Matt Wray suggests that the cause is, well, let me just quote him:

“The Intermountain West is a place that is disproportionately populated by middle-aged and aging white men, single, unattached, often unemployed, with access to guns.”

I don’t know what the story is and it’s quite possible that it’s a combination of being surrounded by people happier than you, less oxygen in the air and, um, white guys with guns, but it can always be something else too: I still remember my graduate school course on research methodologies where we identified causal and correlational data to more easily find weak research. And there’s a lot of it.

What’s your take? Why do you think depressed people in the happiest states, in the Rocky Mountain region, are most likely to commit suicide?


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