US President Barack Obama announced on January 5th that he would be taking executive action on gun control in light of a tragic trend of mass shootings in the last several years. Among the details of his gun control plan, he mentioned an increase in mental health services. While the expansion of mental health support may help in ameliorating the mass shootings epidemic, it may also has positive implications for reducing the number of Americans who die due to mental health causes. Using DASIL’s United States Mortality by Cause of Death, Race, and Gender visualization, one can see how deaths due to mental illness have been on the rise since the 1990s, and how the trend has had varying effects on every demographic:
When looking at strictly male versus female deaths due to mental health causes, males in recent years are slightly more affected than females, at an average 3.84 deaths compared to 3.50 as of 2009. However, the 90s saw the reverse, with female fatalities at 1.92 compared to 1.37 in 1994.
When breaking down within each gender by race, a much different story emerges. For females, the sharp rise in deaths due to mental health is observed after the year 2000, which differs from the trend for all races and all genders. In addition, while each race follows the same sharp increase after the year 2000, white women are more adversely affected, at an average 5.92 deaths compared to 4.09 for blacks and 3.68 for other races in 2009. For males, on the other hand, the same sharp increase also appears after the year 2000, however the averages for each race are much less in comparison to their female counterparts. White males are also more adversely affected in comparison to other races, at 3.11 deaths, while black males are averaging 2.41 deaths and other races 2.33 deaths.
Why has mental health been more fatal for women across all demographics? One reason may be eating disorders. Women are more likely to contract an eating disorder than men (although that does not mean men do not develop eating disorders), and eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. For example, according to the South Carolina Department of Mental Health, the mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa, one type of eating disorder, is 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females between the ages of 15-24 years old.
President Obama’s plan for enforced support and better resources for those suffering with mental illness will not only help in tackling the gun violence epidemic, but also larger instances of mental illness fatalities.