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I would be interested in any changes to how suicides are recorded in this time period. e.g. the further back you go, there was presumably more stigma around it and perhaps deaths by suicide were coded as something different?

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I also have big questions about the older data. It strikes me that suicide was more stigmatized and that far more people lived in small towns with less rigorous accountability for recording deaths. In my family, I know one suicide was recorded as an accidental death (1960s) and I believe a second one may have been (1950s). In both cases, the town at large was happy to keep a code of silence around the deaths and no one would have batted an eye at recording the deaths less than accurately. This doesn’t explain later changes, but could explain some of the initial rise. Has anyone looked into accidental deaths that have the potential to be suicide from the earlier data?

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Sep 3, 2023Liked by Peter Gray

I think this is an important question. I definitely have a family “accidental death” that seems, based on the circumstances, more likely to have been a suicide, way back in the 1870s. It’s hard to see whether destigmatization may have changed the reporting or if a drop in specific religious belief or an increase in access to weapons might have accounted for the difference. Certainly the difference between male and female suicide rates seems possibly tied to availability of methods by gender.

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author

Great question.

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Just rephrasing: it would help, if it were possible, to know what the choice to commit suicide meant to the person who made that choice. Was it simply to end the pain, the fear? Or was it in addition a political act, a statement ?

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There are lots of great ideas already in these comments. I have responded to a few of them, somewhat randomly, but will think about them more systematically in coming days and prepare a new D post summarizing some of them and presenting my own current hypotheses concerning the three questions. Keep the thoughts coming, and if anyone is interested in doing some research to test one or more of the hypotheses, let me know.

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Sep 3, 2023Liked by Peter Gray

1) Looking at the table of numbers rather than the graphic, it seems easier (because of the much larger gap between data points in the early decades) to interpret the pattern not as as a smooth-ish curve up and down in the middle of the graph, but rather as an approximate plateau in numbers in both girls and boys all the way from 1980 to 2014--a plateau of 35 years length--with the one year of 1990 as a spiking aberration in a long term trend that is slowly upward. This poses a different couple of questions to me: a) what is the cause of the overall rise across 7 decades and b) what is the cause of the aberrant single spike around 1990?

2) I know social media as an explanation is problematic, but I will say that I teach college and the freshmen frequently self-report social media as an immense source of, or maybe I would prefer to say magnifier of, social stress. I think we shouldn't dismiss their own insights too easily.

3) I recently read Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit. He describes a trend in the US across recent decades towards an ever increasing attribution of an individual's social "success" or "failure" to that individual and their intrinsic merit, rather than to social factors. He also describes an increasing acceptance among people (specifically Americans but also Brits) of this claim as a way to explain their own status in life. He doesn't talk about gender differences, but on a gut level I'd be shocked if this feeling of being responsible for your own social fate didn't weigh more heavily on boys. I think the myth of living in a meritocracy is incredibly mentally destructive. I highly recommend the book in general, but also it might have good insights into the mental state of teens as they see where they are going to land in the social ladder and feel as though the responsibility for that destiny all rests on them.

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My hunch would be that since WW2 there has been a gradual restriction of freedom for boys. Greater urbanization, more eyes on them, less time outside, etc. We have denied their evolutionary imperative to gather in packs during their teen years and roam around being annoying and getting into trouble--that period in a boy's life is formative. What we think is a civilizing influence may be backfiring.

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Linda, you have said ,better than I might have, exactly what I think happened. I may quote you, if you don'd mind, in my next D letter.

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Of course. Thanks.

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I feel this. I’m currently a socially-driven entrepreneur who never breaks the law, obsessively cares for his wife, and spends as much time outdoors having fun with his daughters as business will let me... but boy did I love getting in trouble when I was younger. Some of my best memories are wandering other people’s properties, driving and operating the biggest vehicles and machines I could get my hands on and pushing them to their limits, and climbing everything from trees to light poles to buildings as high as possible. Nothing kids can often do today, and I’m a millennial. My parents didn’t care where I was after the age of 6 or 7 as long as I was home by dinner. By the time I was 12 or 13 just needed to be back by dark. This freedom was critical to my success.

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Paul, my husband grew up in Albuquerque, and he and his buddies on the weekends used to go and drive the big machinery that was being used to put in I-25. So you know how long ago that was. Can you imagine that happening today? For one thing, they would never leave the keys in that earth moving equipment, and for another thing, any boy who did that would immediately be arrested and have a criminal record. My husband later became a college professor, so no criminal mastermind. Just a teen boy.

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Agreed! The criminal risk is scary. What your husband did sounds like a lot of fun.

I will say I did take my daughters behind some yellow tape recently to check out some machines used to pave roads in our neighborhood after hours. One of the tractors totally had the door open with the key in the ignition... I didn’t start the engine but put both my girls in the cockpit and lit up the dashboard.

It was exciting! And a great learning experience. Girls had a blast and asked to go back the next day. They are a toddler and preschooler ☺️

I’m actively trying to give them as much creative freedom and adventure as possible.

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Love that you did this with them.

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Very unusual in your age cohort, but critical to all sorts of adolescent male animals, not just humans. You were very lucky. That's the sort of adolescence my father had in the WW2 generation.

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Brainstorming... In the early 1990's, we had gay and lesbian rights taking a significant place in political conversations, which likely gave hope to a lot of marginalized youth. We had grunge music, which certainly spoke to a lot of nihilistic young folks and young males in particular, as the lyrics around emotional pain and addiction brought young men's inner conflicts around masculinity and mental health out into the open. We also had the resurgence of feminism including the massive growth and popularity of women's music, grrrl power culture and specifically lesbian visibility. And this might be kind of a reach, but in the end of 1989 the Berlin wall came down. As an American child I remember that being an emotional experience for many, there was likely a lot of tension held in young people's bodies that we were unaware of due to the Cold War being centered by our news outlets.

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I was thinking something similiar, like having a peer group - be it political or listening to the same kind of music. And I would argue that people have felt a deep sense of meaning, feeling worthy through fighting for political rights. I was a teenager in the 90ies and by the way, I‘m German and have been experiencing the fall of the wall firsthand (I was born in the GDR). Hm, although I‘m not sure if the figures also apply to Europe (Western, Eastern, Northern). And, of course, it would be interesting to have a look at all countries. If there‘s also some correlation with the rise of Social Media.

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It would definitely be interesting to know whether these were global trends. I would be curious to know how the wall and the fall affected youth mental health. Connection and purpose certainly do go a long way in keeping us sane, even in the midst of disaster and strife.

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I thought of the Berlin wall coming down too, thinking that to many it signalled hope for the future. I couldn't figure 2008 though. Maybe a kind of despair among those who didn't want the world to change, and who saw the election of Obama as the ultimate disaster? Or perhaps, the expression of this kind of negativity by these kids parents.

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Also highly recommend Jean Twenge's book Generations. She dives into the data around the rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among each generation.

https://a.co/d/3Odm57K

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Family breakdown? Divorce?

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I find it truly wild that no one else has mentioned this. I think if we took a sober look, we’d see a direct correlation between suicide and the breakdown of the nuclear family. I’m not in any way “conservative” but yet I appreciate some conservative positions, and this is definitely one of them. The breakdown of the family has absolutely got to be considered here. The loss of positive, selfless role models, the loss of the image of unconditional love being expressed -- a massive increase in displays of CONDITIONAL love -- whether it be familial, political, religious, etc.

We’ve seen a severe lack of proper eldership in the past 70 years in general. Along with the breakdown in the family unit, a move toward individuality, a move to separate oneself from a family unit or a local grouping or nation or even global unit has poisoned the minds of many, leaving a significant deficit in elders who have grown UP, beyond the me me me mentality of early childhood to middle school age. We have been so self-servingly focused in the past 70 years -- perhaps more than at any time in human history. This certainly has a lot to do with corporate conditioning -- that we are nothing without our precious conveniences, etc. I can’t think of much that is more depressing than to never consider the well-being of my community, to never be educated and informed of the benefit of self-sacrifice -- in service to the Whole.

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Also not conservative, but wanted to highlight I think it is more than a lack of a dad around the house kind of thing. I’m raising two kids now and my wife and I are both very involved in their upbringing. It’s still hella hard raising a family with two working parents. Our closest helpers are 20 minutes away and their grand parents are 45 minutes - 2 hours away. It’s so hard to get any help. We have no village, no community, no family members that come to help regularly. Not even when the kids were infants. We constantly need more help, more time to ourselves, the kids need more attention, and everyone else is too busy to help. And we have a big family and a sizable friend group (it was hard to get our wedding down to 150 people and 45 people showed up to my daughters 2nd birthday). We feel lonely even though we’re in a neighborhood full of other families. My wife and I joke that everyone else is probably just as lonely and helpless as we are and we’re all only two walls away from each other.

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One could argue that the breakdown of community is an extension of the breakdown of the family. Your story breaks my heart honestly. It’s like, there’s all these resources, but no one wants to stand up and utilize them, which means offering themselves up in service to the group so that others will follow suit. It’s like a herd of arctic penguins in a windstorm. They HAVE to gather together as a matter of survival. They form a spiral, which constantly rotates; those in the midddle are warmed while those on the outside willingly sacrifice their heat for them, but the whole thing shifts, because it’s not sustainable to have the mindset of “mine” and not willingly shift when my needs have been met so that I can support those who also have needs — meaning, those on the outside won’t be cold for long and those who’ve been warmed need to take a turn providing protection and warmth. In your case, following that model, which is tens of thousands of years old by the way, families would step in and care each other in all the ways care is needed, and when they have needs, they can trust that they will be met. And within a family, same thing. Imagine how much less depressed we’d alll be if we could just simply TRUST each other!

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Agreed! Great metaphor with the penguins. At times it seems humans are less humane than other animals.

We’re trying to be extra supportive of new parents because of your points. I’m trying to build a business that allows more freedom in how and when people work to support entrepreneurial parents. Struggling to solve the healthcare problem since that is tied to employment...

The whole system feels rigged against my family living the American dream. Like a small percentage of a couple generations got to live the dream and now we all work for them non stop. We can’t even take care of our kids effectively anymore.

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Here’s hoping the model your family sets will be infectious and start to take off around you! Kudos, friend.

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Another related possibility is generational trauma post-WWII. Broken men coming home from war leading to absent fathers, which would impact boys more than girls (not to mention the impact of the millions of fathers who did not come home). This behavior would be passed down through the next generation who become fathers, but to a lessened degree which may be one reason you see suicide rates start to recover in the 90s. Social media and the other usual suspects would be why it's started to worsen again lately.

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Was there a huge drop in divorce/family breakdown in the 90s?

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Some possibilities on the different rates by sex.

1. Women have high rates of depression but are more likely to seek help.

2. As you mentioned, if suicide attempts were included it's possible that the women's rate would be higher than shown. They are just using a less lethal means.

3. Having children and concerns for them if one committed suicide, could be a greater deterrent to suicide for women than men.

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Agree, although the last one is not so likely to apply to the 15-19-year-olds we are talking about here. I think the biggest reason for the sex difference is that boys (and men) are on average more impulsive than girls and women. That's among other things why they are more often diagnosed with ADHD and engage in more reckless actions of all sorts. My thought is this: A boy thinks, "I want do kill myself," and he might then impulsively do it. A girl thinks the same thing, but she is more likely to mull it over, less likely to act on the impulse. She may be more inclined to discuss it with someone, to look for help in one way or another. I'm also playing with the idea that impulsiveness among boys increased over the years from 1950 to 1990 and I have some ideas as to why that might have happened.

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It's definitely worth of looking at data from other countries. I've had a look at the Australian data for the same age group and across the same time period, and it's a far more jumpy pattern (although boys still commit suicide way more than girls).

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I wonder if accessibility to guns is different in males to females or in different time periods. That could be a research rabbit hole on a red herring, but I’m curious about that.

I also wonder if the decline after 1990 has anything to do with increasing cultural awareness and acceptance of LGBTQ issues. (Don’t misunderstand, we’ve still got a long way to go, but there’s been progress.)

Finally, I wonder how much the gap between males and females is that boys aren’t “supposed” to have feelings and how much that hurts boys/teens/men in general. It seems like a real “one step forward, two steps back” thing culturally, where it seems like we move toward breaking down toxic masculinity and then the backlash comes (especially thinking of the US since 2016…).

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Hi! I was 15-19 during the height of the suicide rate, and I wrote about it not long ago, through the lens of the movie Heathers: https://open.substack.com/pub/amyletter/p/teenage-suicide-dont-do-it-heathers?utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web

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I strongly agree with this quote of yours, “I theorize that, yes, “teens 20 years ago were exceptionally well,” because they grew up, more or less, using versions of the internet that were more open and free and not yet built for profit. They could connect with people and ideas and art and culture, they could create and share and make an impact, and they could escape the mainstream conformists and their bullying, because the internet was not yet mainstream.” And it reminds me of the “enshittification” of the internet: https://www.wired.com/story/tiktok-platforms-cory-doctorow/

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This is very much in line with my thinking about the decline, especially for boys, beginning just after 1990. I might emphasize the value of video games at this time, as providing a source of excitement and challenge for boys that had been declining for decades previously.

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And now games, like almost all software, are traps for our minds. They aren’t just fun, but designed to keep us playing the game, spending our time and money.

I’m a neuroscience researcher. One of the most fascinating things I’ve discovered about video game usage is that some games cause your brain to grow (like literally become more dense with matter) and others cause it to shrink. While studying device usage for my daughters, my wife and I learned about this idea of a digital diet. We all need to learn to consume the right amount of the right software. We can’t be healthy and eat as much of whatever we want to eat.

Similarly, we need to watch what software is replacing with respect to how we spend our time. If we’re replacing building warm connections with other people in a natural environment with developing a cold addiction to machinery, that’s not good for our mental health.

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I have heard before that the prevalence of lead in the atmosphere due to leaded gasoline usage correlates surprisingly well with violent crime stats, that's the first thing that comes to mind here as well. The increase from 1950-90 could maybe be from increasing auto ubiquity and therefore increasing lead in atmosphere. Right around 1990 is when significant phase outs of leaded gasoline began and presumably atmospheric lead has been reducing ever since.

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Then the increase from 2010 would be due to some other cause, and intuitively this feels like social media or some other internet or smartphone related effect, which I know many other will suggest as well

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I'm a family medicine resident. And I am astounded by how different childhood seems to be, compared to when I was in Junior/High school from 2004-2010. Kids are routinely staying up til 3am watching tiktok. They are comparing themselves to what they are watching on this turbo-charged AI algorithm, which feeds the most addictive content. I can't help but wonder if social media content trained to maximize engagement is contributing to the rise of hopelessness?

This is my big question for you. Because I 100% agree with the Free to Play philosophy without adult interference. Just finished your book. And I wonder how to make sense of the relationship that kids today have with technology. Because this is much different than leaving a computer open for kids to learn how to use.

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When I was in the 6th grade, I read LOTR. I had never encountered anything so life affirming, so devoid of sly cynicism. I read it over and over again. I lived in those books.

This so frightened my Mother that she hid my copies of the novels from me.

You might want to reflect some on just what you're calling addictive.

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Yes, I think reading is a wonderful for kids. Books feed us content we may not be expecting. They engage the imagination. Stories have been told for all of human history. They define our species and augment how we interpret the world. Maybe you’re right and “addicting” is the wrong way to put it. But LOTR books are not a multi-billion dollar tech company tracking our every preference, whose data is then used to feed us content to keep us stimulated as long as possible, for the purpose of consuming advertisements. Maybe my qualms are more with the advertisement industry? Maybe I have issues with kids being manipulated to consume, rather than engage with thoughts and the world autonomously. Tech is forcing itself into our lives to extract as much profit as possible. And this leads to kids staying up all night watching tiktok, then incapable of meaningfully engaging with the world during the day.

But I’m open to thoughts. I’m eager to learn and take in different perspectives. This topic worries me. The kids do not seem OK. I’m just here to share what I’ve seen and to ask more questions. Not saying I have any answers or that I even understand this issue well.

But it seems clear as day that kids who consume more tiktok are more sleep-deprived, anxious, and struggling through life. A fair number of these kids are indeed suicidal.

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An interesting question to ask here I think would be: To what extent is it possible to seduce or manipulate someone? While I do not think these are merely words without referents, I do believe they are used too readily. Am I being seduced when a very physically attractive woman smiles and makes eyes at me ? Perhaps so, but thats only a problem if some kind of deception is involved - she just wants my money, or perhaps she has a boyfriend waiting outside, ready to clobber me. Or a car commercial may imply that if I just buy a Porsche, an attractive woman will suddenly appear in my life. Of course that is probably true, although it will be the kind of woman who just wants my money.

Rather than blaming others for seducing or manipulating us, I think that most of the time it makes more sense to focus on learning to want things that are actually good for us. When that happens, it doesnt matter that all Tolkiens publisher cared about was how much profit they could make selling the book; what matters is that I got the book, I enjoyed it, and it was good for me.

In the case of kids staying up to 3am on Tik Tok, they just might be getting something they value highly by doing so, and it just must might even be good for them - whether it is the opportunity to socialize or perhaps just to play and entertain themselves, under conditions where they are not likely to be interrupted by adults.

Now compare how we often say that schools use rewards and punishments, pride and shame to control and manipulate. What makes this manipulative? Well, the key is that this control is being exerted under conditions where the kids are not free to simply walk away, to discover other relations with adults who do not seek to control them this way, and to discover that they find this preferable.

Finally, it might make an interesting idea for an sf novel for an AI to be developed that could truly read your mind, know what you value, and make it available to you. Would that be a bad thing? Would the AI conclude that what you really want most of all is to be left free to make your own mistakes, as well as to experience your own successes ?

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First, 18 year old males were required to register for the Selective Service in 1980, so that could account at least partially for the rise from 1980 1990. 2001 was 9/11, so the decrease afterward might be a reaction of simply being glad to be alive. The increase after 2016 might reflect the societal upheaval of the 2016 election, the rise in school shootings and the increasing signs of climate change. Again, the dip in 2020 could be both being glad to be alive and having more time out of school. School is incredibly stressful the way we do it, no matter how well a student performs. Environmental factors like diet certainly play a part because Americans consume high-carb, nutrient-deficient food full of chemicals that are banned in Europe. Metabolic disease is rampant because we put corn syrup in everything and high quality proteins and fresh produce are expensive. We eat industrial seed oils instead of natural fats, the lack of which is probably why depression is so common. The depression leads to taking psychiatric medicines, which can be dangerous - being on the right combination can save your life, but finding that balance can take years, and the wrong ones can cause suicidal ideation.

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Sep 3, 2023·edited Sep 3, 2023

Men also were required to register for Selective Service in earlier periods of the data presented here, and before 1974 that registration gave you a good chance of being drafted. I'm not sure the requirement you mention in 1980 would have had the same negative impact on mental well-being as it did for those who registered during the Vietnam War.

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No, of course, not - the situation with the Vietnam war was horrific. The kids who had to sign up after 1980 would barely have remembered Vietnam and I've seen how guys stressed about signing up when we were in Iraq and Afghanistan. It's a different level, but I think it contributes to the overall problem.

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I think it's so important to look at diet when we ask this question. In academic circles looking at Gluten Intolerance it is often highlighted how much more gluten is in our diet than previously, it's added to bulk out all kinds of processed foods, and apparently our flour contains a lower amount of bran and thus a higher amount of gluten than previously, apparently higher proportions of high-gluten low-nutrient wheat is commercially grown. The reason I find this particularly interesting is that I changed my diet due to gastric/bruising reasons, and decades of depression lifted within 2 weeks - as if by magic. I had tried tablets and therapy (both of which evoked my academic interest in studying psychology) - and these helped to some extent, but changing my diet had almost an instantaneous result that was no way on my conscious radar - I had no idea really about the strength of links between nutrition and mental health, I believed myself to be eating a good diet full of vegetables and fruits. So looking at things like inflammation - and within that diet and nutrition as well as pollution and environmental toxins very much needs to be in the conversation. That isn't to underplay the importance of the social landscape, of education, of freedom and play and stress and pressure - personally I think a huge seismic shift needs to happen to balance all of these things to build the better world we want to see.

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I wouldnt have a clue how to relate this to the data, but I experienced similar benefits to my mental state when during the onset of Covid, I embarked upon a series of first 3 day fasts and then 6 day fasts, as a strategy for boosting my immune system. At the same time I learned more about nutrition and eliminated seed oils from my diet, as well as bread, going nearly Keto.

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It's all extremely interesting. Obviously I always knew the "what you eat affects how you feel" stuff, but according to all measures I was eating healthily, so my diet wasn't something I should have considered. However, looking back I remember that when I was anorexic and eating an extremely limited diet of skimmed milk and chocolate buttons I felt mentally "good" - but then when I began to reintroduce food I started to feel bad again. I related this at the time to me being a "bad" person and eating, but looking back I realise that my anorexic diet cut out gluten - the thing that was actually causing the bulk of my depression!

There are many more studies now than when I first changed my diet - and I'm always fascinated to see their findings. For example, a higher proportion of people with later-diagnosed Coeliac or gluten sensitivity seem to have had bouts of anorexia or food restriction, which it was suggested may be a result of your body "knowing" something feels wrong when you eat but being unable to identify WHAT it is. All really fascinating stuff I'm following with interest!

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A very interesting comparison is overlaying a county by county suicide rate by amount of Republicans and Democratic voters. Areas on each map stick out. Without looking, it is fair to assume I will say my theory is Republicans counties have a higher rate. However, in both overwhelming Republican and Democratic counties the rates were at the lowest. Areas where voting rates are tighter or border opposing political parties have significantly higher rates. Oglala Lakota County, with a high Native American population (always, unfortunately, with higher suicide rates, in South Dakota is a eye-popping example. Those mixed counties, specifically in the Mountain States, rates increase faster and areas of similar voters. I started looking at these maps with a theory of urban areas would see a greater increase than rural under your theory. So, as political riffs deepen, so do suicide rates in teens. rates are less where voters agree more. Also, LGBTQ+ have a higher rate of suicides but states with the highest populations of people who identify as LGBTQ+ have lower rates of suicide per 100k (other factors such as age of the population was not looked at). I think a key factor here is KNOWN people who identify as LGBTQ+. So, the states with high populations of people who identify as LGBTQ+, the most at-risk group, have lower suicide rates per 100k people. These states also follow my initial theory of politically clashing areas having higher rates compared to one sided areas.

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