26 July 2011

Mother Jones article about suicides deserves a closer look

Update 7/27: I questioned the author about her numbers:
@smencimer your Mother Jones article is confusing; 9 suicides over two years in a 38,000 student district is just about the national average
She responded:
@theprez98 many were clustered in a single school. Also one was of a 13 yr old, which is very rare. National rate is one in every 65000
And she's right: the suicide rate for children age 10-14 is 1 in 65,000. That's not a number I had considered. But what does it prove, especially since she claims that one of the students (of the nine) was 13? It doesn't prove anything.

Let's do some rough math: Presuming that 38,000 students are split equally in ages from 6-18, we'd have about 2,900 students of each age, and ~14,600 students age 10-14. Over a two year period, this becomes ~29,000 students, one of which committed suicide. So one of 29,000 students committed suicide compared to a national average of one per 65,000. I suppose you could argue that this is "double the national average!" However, it's one student. Again, as tragic as it is, one student does not make an epidemic.

And she agrees:
@theprez98 yes, age group is key. and yes: not an epidemic. bad word choice. but tech. a cluster. First 5 suicides were very close together.
There is a Mother Jones article being passed around on Twitter entitled, "The Teen Suicide Epidemic in Michele Bachmann's District." The article doesn't blame Rep. Bachmann for the suicides, obviously, but suggests that
[s]ome of the victims were gay, or perceived to be by their classmates, and many were reportedly bullied. And the anti-gay activists who are some of the congresswoman's closest allies stand accused of blocking an effective response to the crisis and fostering a climate of intolerance that allowed bullying to flourish.
The article also said that "State public health officials have labeled the area a 'suicide contagion area' because of the unusually high death rate."  The article itself cites 9 suicides over the past two years in one particular school district.

Sensing that something might be amiss with the motivation behind this article, I decided to take a closer look at the underlying numbers.

According to the CDC, about 34,000 people commit suicide every year in the United States. Based on the current U.S. population of just over 310 million people, this represents about one suicide for every 9,100 people. This translates to about 11 suicides for every 100,000 people.

The article states that the school district in question has 38,000 students. Mapping the school district against the national average, you would expect that about 4.2 students out of 38,000 would commit suicide in a year; or 8.4 students over a two year period.  Again, this is according to the national average, which represents all age groups.  So we're looking at 9 suicides vs. 8.4 suicide national average.

As it turns out, you might be surprised that teenagers (well, age group 15-24) actually has a slightly lower suicide rate than the national average (about 10 per 100,000), which translates to 7.6 students out of 38,000 students over a two year period.

Lastly, multiple reports suggest that, while the exact rates are unclear, LGBT youth have a comparatively higher suicide rate than the general population.

So let's recap: The article reported that 9 student suicides (out of 38,000 students) over a two year period was an "epidemic."  National and age-group relevant statistics suggests that over a two year period, approximately 8 students would commit suicide out of this population (not even accounting for a higher LGBT rate).

While these suicides are indeed tragic, this article is not newsworthy, and it's purpose must be questioned. It's hard to imagine that this is anything but a dirty political hit piece designed to stain a presidential candidate.
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