Sometimes I try to do things
and they just don’t work out the way I want ’em to . . .
— from “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies
In the era when Generation X was coming of age, suicide was a growing problem but was seldom discussed openly, honestly, or rationally. Then, as we came of age in the 1980s, the subject was becoming something that had to be addressed. Public outrage was aimed at Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” after a teenager killed himself in 1986. A few years later, in 1990, two sets of parents sued Judas Priest over allegations that subliminal messages in songs had caused their sons’ suicides in 1985. Parents of Gen-Xers nationwide were worried the gateway drugs of heavy metal and Dungeons & Dragons were going to lead kids to worship the devil and end their lives. Looking back, they were worried about the wrong things.
Though times have changed and suicide prevention is discussed more openly, one CDC study tells us that the trends were scary in the ’80s and ’90s, especially among boys:
The suicide rate for males aged 15–19 years increased from 12.0 to 18.1 per 100,000 population from 1975 to 1990, declined to 10.8 by 2007, and then increased 31% to 14.2 by 2015. The rate in 2015 for males was still lower than the peak rates in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s. Rates for females aged 15–19 were lower than for males aged 15–19 but followed a similar pattern during 1975–2007 (increasing from 2.9 to 3.7 from 1975 to 1990, followed by a decline from 1990 to 2007). The rates for females then doubled from 2007 to 2015 (from 2.4 to 5.1). The rate in 2015 was the highest for females for the 1975–2015 period.
That brief report doesn’t get into the causes but some studies have attributed the decline in teen-suicide rates to more effective antidepressants that came on the market in the late 1980s. The real question should have been: why do so many teenagers need antidepressants?
However, despite those heavy increases in teen suicides nationally, rates in the Deep South tended to be lower. A January 2001 publication titled “Juvenile Suicides, 1981 – 1998,” shows that rates in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina were near or below the national average. In Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee, rates were only slightly higher. Arkansas’s much-higher rate was an outlier for the region. That 2001 report also contains graphs showing that suicides were more common among white teenagers than black, and more common among boys than girls. These maps from that report give a visual representation of the differences:
The maps also show us something else about the culture of Generation X in the Deep South: murder rates were higher than suicide rates among teenagers. That says to me that, back then, violence was more likely to be turned outward than inward, especially in a culture where guns were prevalent.
Stories about teen suicide and efforts to prevent it littered Southern newspapers throughout the ’80s and ’90s. In September 1989, an AP wire article out of Little Rock explained that a state commission was looking at the problem, because Arkansas’s annual rate increase was “a staggering 88 percent.” Another article out of Mississippi in March 1987 said that teen suicides had doubled since 1970, though the increase there could have been attributed to “better overall record keeping since 1978 and an eroding stigma about putting suicide as the official cause of death on death certificates.”
The numbers show that suicide was a major problem among Generation X. They also show that the problem was less severe in the Deep South, though it’s hard to say why. Maybe the Southern penchant for valuing family and tradition made a difference. Maybe it was a byproduct of a culture with a strong religious element. Maybe we were less tapped-in to pop culture. Whatever the reasons, they either aren’t clearly documented or aren’t easily located.