Skip to main content

Americans' Attitudes Toward Suicide Are Softening

But as with so many social issues, the liberal-conservative divide has grown wider over time.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Americans are slightly more accepting of suicide today than they were in the 1980s. But the vast majority continue to disapprove of the practice except in one specific instance: when the person in question is suffering from an incurable disease.

That's the key finding of a new study, which looks at how attitudes toward taking one's own life shifted from the 1980s to the 2010s. It finds an overall shift toward more acceptance, tempered by reduced tolerance among political conservatives and rural residents.

It appears our red/blue divide extends to suicide.

Yi Tong of the City University of New York and Julie Phillips of Rutgers University analyzed data from the General Social Survey, comparing 4,840 responses from the 1980s with 5,607 from the 2010s.

They found "a clear pattern of Americans adopting more tolerant attitudes towards suicide over time, with greater percentages of Americans finding suicide acceptable in all four circumstances (listed on the survey)."

Specifically, the percentage who said suicide is acceptable in the case of incurable disease increased from 46.9 percent to 61.4 percent. Other numbers were much lower, but the trend was the same. Those feeling suicide is acceptable if a person is "tired of living" rose from 13.7 to 19.1 percent, while those who found bankruptcy an acceptable reason to kill yourself rose from 7.3 percent to 10.9 percent.

The researchers estimate about half of this shift in attitudes can be attributed to demographic changes, such as a greater percentage of Americans getting college degrees. (Acceptability of suicide is greater among the highly educated.)

On the other hand, both in the 1980s and today, 65-plus is the age group with the least tolerance for suicide. That means another major trend—the aging of the population—moves the needle in the other direction.

Given these crosswinds, the overall shift in attitudes is relatively small—but undeniable. The "death with dignity" movement has clearly convinced many Americans that terminally ill people should be able to make their own choices, while the long-term trend toward secularization appears to be reducing the stigma of suicide overall.

This trend masks some widening splits, however. In the 1980s, conservatives on average scored 0.18 points lower than liberals on the suicide acceptability scale. In the 2010s, this gap increased to 0.38 percent. Similarly, suicide became more acceptable to urban dwellers over the decades, even as it was gradually seen as less acceptable to rural residents.

That makes sense, given that such areas tend to be more religious and conservative. However, federal statistics show suicide rates in rural America rose by 14 percent over a recent five-year period, compared to 8 percent in urban areas. (The easy accessibility of firearms in rural areas is a likely contributor to this worrying trend.)

Tong and Phillips caution it's impossible to determine whether this shift in attitudes is responsible for the much-discussed rise in the suicide rate, or vice-versa. Perhaps, they note, "the act has become somewhat normalized, contributing to more accepting attitudes."

Either way, the findings are a reminder that the stigma around suicide remains strong. If it continues to decline, Americans may become more willing to talk about, and get counseling for, their suicidal thoughts—which would ultimately lead to fewer tragic deaths.