Over the past several months, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Los Angeles area, my home for seven years before becoming New To Seattle. Staying on one trip near LAX in a hotel with a very slow elevator, I struck up a conversation with a young couple from San Diego also waiting to ride.
After I said I live in Seattle, the woman said she had never been there but heard it has the nation’s highest suicide rate.
The lift arrived at their floor and the couple got out. The comment stunned me. A total stranger, prompted about Seattle, could only think of one thing–suicide. Not scenic beauty, Super Bowl XLVIII, legal recreational marijuana, Amazon.com or even the rain.
Talk about an image issue.
The conversation also prompted me to dig into the data. Did Seattle really have the country’s highest suicide rate?
The answer, I am happy to report, is no. But the rate isn’t all that low, either.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the yearly national suicide rate for 2010, the latest comprehensive info I could find, was 12.1 for every 100,000 persons. In Seattle proper, according to the King County Health Department, the rate that same year was 11.5. That’s lower, although not by much.
But averages often obscure some interesting insights, including, here, the fact that more sparsely populated areas tend to have far higher suicide rates. Look at peer groups, like big cities or crowded areas, and Seattle is a lot closer to the top.
A 2012 list by Sperling’s Best Places of the country’s “most stressful” big cities among the 50 biggest metropolitan areas–covering half the country’s population–used suicide as one factor. The list said the suicide rate for Seattle-Bellevue-Everett was 11.7–the 10th highest of the 50. (In case you wonder, Seattle on the Stress-O-Meter ranked No. 9.) A 2010 federal study of attempted suicide based on 70,000 interviews ranked metro Seattle No. 2 among 33 areas evaluated.
I couldn’t find a CDC list for suicide rates by city, but I was able to query its online database for rates by counties. The CDC said the rate in King County, of which Seattle comprises one-third the population, was 11.8.
According to the CDC, the rate in Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas, was a whopping 19.3. But the home county of Boulder, Colo. was even higher: 20.4. A few other populous counties were higher than King–among them, those containing Tulsa and Salt Lake City, both 18.9; Albuquerque (where I lived for 12 years), 17.7; Denver, 17.3; Oklahoma City, 15.6; Portland, Ore. and Phoenix, both 14.8; Sacramento, 13.8, St. Louis, 12.5; and, by a hair, San Francisco, 11.9.
However, the bulk of the crowded counties were lower, often by a lot. Examples: the main county including Atlanta, 10.9; Detroit and Dallas, both 10.8; Minneapolis and Houston (my home for seven years), 10.7; Cleveland, 10.4; Pittsburgh, 10.3; Oakland, Calif., 9.7; New Orleans and Baltimore, both 9.3; Miami, 8.8; Los Angeles, 8.2; Chicago, 7.6; Washington D.C., 6.8; Newark, N.J., 5.7; and Brooklyn, N.Y. (another place I lived), 4.9.
I do hear continual talk about suicide rates in Seattle, where some public transit buses currently carry suicide hotline advertisements on their sides. In recent weeks, at least, some of that chatter might have been prompted by the 20th anniversary of one of the country’s most famous suicides, Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, in the greenhouse of his home at 171 Lake Washington Blvd. E. in Seattle on April 5, 1994. A recording of his widow, singer Courtney Love, reading parts of his suicide note was played publicly at a Seattle Center vigil five days later, perhaps reinforcing the popular association of suicide and Seattle.
Still, Seattle statistically is hardly an outlier when it comes to suicide rates, even within Washington State. A number of counties have far higher rates than King County’s 11.8, including the neighboring jurisdictions of Pierce (16.7), Kitsap (15.9) and Snohomish (15.1). Even sunny, east-of-the-Cascades Spokane County has a much higher rate (14.2), which might debunk a theory put to me by any number of Seattleites that the local rate is primarily caused by cloudy-sky-induced depression. Statewide, Washington State’s suicide rate ranks 23d among the 50 states, according to the CDC.
The statistical association of Seattle with high suicide rates goes way back. A half-century ago, a federal study, “Suicide in the United States, 1950-1964” (downloadable here), ranked the Seattle metro area No. 4 among the country’s 57 most populous areas (behind Tampa/St. Petersburg, San Francisco/Oakland and Los Angeles/Long Beach). The listed Seattle metro rate for the representative year of 1960 was a lot higher than now, 16.7. That might mean the subsequent trend has been good, although suicide statistics are notoriously tricky to evaluate due to different counting methodologies and society’s reluctance to declare all suicides as such.
Then there’s the 167-foot-high George Washington Memorial Bridge (pictured above), a/k/a Aurora Bridge, over Seattle’s Lake Washington Ship Canal. The span was long believed to be the country’s second most-popular venue for suicide behind San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, with upwards of 230 deaths since its opening on George Washington’s 200th birthday in 1932. After years of hectoring by community groups, Washington State in 2011 spent nearly $5 million to erect an 8-foot-9-inch-high safety fence along both walkways. Yet I still hear the Aurora called the “Suicide Bridge.”
Suicide crisis hotlines have been fixtures in Seattle for decades. In the early 1970s, one of their volunteers was future University of Washington graduate Ted Bundy–later revealed as a multi-state serial killer. He was executed in 1989.
With Washington one of four states that has legalized suicide by the terminally ill, I suppose it’s possible to argue that suicide in its many forms has become part of the local culture. So perhaps I shouldn’t be all that surprised by the perception of Seattle held by that woman I met in L.A. But gee, she at least could have mentioned the Seahawks.