Suicide Vulnerability Index Identifies Counties Most at Risk

A novel Suicide Vulnerability Index identifies the US counties most prone to suicide. Researchers hope that the index could help authorities to effectively channel limited resources to the small areas that need immediate attention rather than focusing on entire states.

Suicide has been constantly listed as one of the top ten leading causes of death in the US across all age groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and is a growing health concern in the US. The agency reported an increase in suicides in 2021 after two consecutive years of decline in 2019 and 2020.

Most suicide control and prevention research has been aimed at large geographic areas, either at the national or state level. However, these might not necessarily reflect the trends among small geographic areas such as a county or a local community since there can be regional variations between counties, says Vishnu Kumar, a PhD student in Industrial Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University.

To gain a detailed understanding of suicide trends among small geographic regions, which is necessary to boost targeted and localized suicide control and prevention efforts, a research team led by Kumar looked into the suicide trends in US counties — the smallest possible geographic classification available in the CDC Database.

In their research work, published in the journal npj Mental Health Research, researchers developed a suicide prediction model using Machine Learning for all 3140 US counties. They used 17 county-level factors, including various demographic, health, and socio-economic factors.

The county-level data was collected from various public sources, including the US Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the CDC, from 2010 to 2019.

The study found that among the 17 county-level factors, county population, percentage of African American, White, and female populations, and median age had the highest impact on suicide rates.

Using these features, the researchers developed a novel Suicide Vulnerability Index for each 3140 US counties. On this index, counties close to 0 are less prone to suicides, and those with an index close to 1 are more prone to suicides.

“The proposed Suicide Vulnerability Index can be helpful in identifying counties susceptible to increased suicide rates, especially during the aftermath of natural disasters or pandemics such as COVID-19. Such an index also helps authorities effectively channel the limited resources to counties that need immediate attention rather than an entire state. This can effectively boost targeted suicide control and prevention efforts along with a better allocation of resources,” Kumar says.

Researchers now plan to focus on studying the availability of help resources among counties and developing an optimal model to allocate resources effectively among suicide-prone counties. Moreover, the present study could be extended to include a variety of other county-level factors that were not included in this study, such as the effects of COVID-19 and lockdown.

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