UK College of Social Work’s Julie Cerel on Suicide Rates

Suicidologist Julie Cerel for feature. Photo by Pete Comparoni | UKphoto

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This article was originally published by NBC News.

The number of people who died by suicide rose from 2020 to 2021 following a brief period of decline, according to provisional data released Friday from the National Center for Health Statistics.

It’s a sign, experts say, that suicide rates are inching back up to levels seen before the pandemic.

In 2021, 47,646 people in the United States died by suicide, up from 45,979 in 2020. That’s an increase of nearly 4%.

There had been hope among experts that suicide rates had perhaps peaked in 2018, after steadily rising for nearly two decades. Numbers fell slightly in both 2019 and 2020.

The reasons for those declines are unclear, said Julie Cerel, director of the Suicide Prevention and Exposure Lab at the University of Kentucky.

“In 2019, something changed,” she said. “We’ll never know if it’s because we were doing something right or not.”

Despite the stresses associated with the pandemic, suicide rates did not increase in 2020. Cerel said she was not surprised.

“People were looking after each other” early on in the pandemic, she said. Families were also largely gathered together in their homes, working and studying remotely. People tend to die by suicide when others aren’t around, Cerel said.

The 2021 increases may reflect, in part, a return to normalcy.

The report found that males ages 15 to 24 continue to be at higher risk than other groups. In 2021, there were 24.1 suicides per 100,000 people in this group, up from 22.4 per 100,000 in 2020, an increase of 8%.

The higher rates among younger men may be because they are more likely to engage in high risk-taking behaviors and tend to have greater access to the most lethal means in terms of suicide attempts, said Michael Lindsey, dean of the New York University Silver School of Social Work. Lindsey’s research focuses on preventing suicides in young people, especially Black youth.

The new report did not provide a racial and ethnic breakdown of recent suicides. However, previous research has indicated a worrisome rise among young Black men.

Suicide rates also increased for men ages 24 through 44, as well as 65 through 74.

While men have historically been more likely to die by suicide than women, the report zeroed in on another alarming trend: suicides in middle school-age girls.

In 2020, 204 girls ages 10 to 14 died by suicide. In 2021, that number rose to 237 — an increase of 16%. The overall numbers are so low in this age group, however, that they’re not considered statistically significant.

“We can’t jump to any conclusions,” Cerel said. “But we need to be looking out for younger girls, as well.”

Lindsey said all of the increases cited in the new report reflect a demand for more mental health professionals to address the growing problem.

“There’s not the requisite numbers of providers to be able to meet the sheer need,” he said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also call the network, previously known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit for additional resources.

For over 85 years, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been a leader in education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the CoSW works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

As the state’s flagship university, our mission is actualized through our deeds. Our faculty are renowned academicians dedicated to fostering the development of high-quality practitioners and researchers. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world.