Suicide has now surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of injury-related deaths in America, according to a troubling new study published in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday.

As the number of auto accident deaths has dropped in last decade, researchers say they have identified an increase in suicides. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that auto-related deaths dropped by 25 percent between 2000 and 2009, but suicide rose by 15 percent during that period.

The crude mortality rate for motor vehicle-related deaths dropped from 14.92 per 100,000 population in 2000 to 11.23 in 2009, while the suicide rate rose from 10.43 to 12.02.

According to the report, authored by Ian Rockett, a professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University, the increasing suicide rates in America have coincided with declining economic conditions. And potentially even more worrisome, the authors say they are concerned that there could be many more deaths due to the underreporting of suicides.

By Rockett's estimate, the amount of unaccounted suicides could be 20 percent higher than reported. "Suicides are terribly undercounted,” he said. “I think the problem is much worse than official data would lead us to believe. We have a situation that has gotten out of hand.”

"No agency analogous to the police exists to assist medical examiner and coroner offices to investigate suicides, thus complicating their case ascertainment relative to homicides," states the report.

Rockett’s study is the first to examine the impact of economic conditions upon suicides in people in their “prime working ages” (between 25 and 64.) His study also found that suicide rates have a tendency to fall during prosperous times.

Researchers found that in 1932 during the Great Depression, when an average of one in four Americans was unemployed, the rate of suicide soared to an unprecedented high of 22 people per 100,000. By comparison in 2000, a prosperous time for the economy, that rate was less than half.

“Economic problems can impact how people feel about themselves and their futures, as well as their relationships with family and friends,” said Feijun Luo, an economist in the Center for Disease Control’s division of violence prevention, in an interview with Bloomberg. “Prevention strategies can focus on individuals, families, neighborhoods or entire communities to reduce risk factors.”

"Both global and national increases in the number and rate of suicides through 2009, and as even more recent data indicates, through 2010, should concern all of us,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "We know a great deal about how to prevent suicides but have yet to overcome centuries of stigmatic attitudes -- and the consequent lack of political will -- to build the collaborative effort to turn these many lives from despair and hopelessness to ones of meaning and brighter futures.”

In an effort to counter the troubling data, a suicide prevention program is underway under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which is backed by $56 million of federal money. “Our goal is, in the next five years, we will save 20,000 human lives,” said Gordon Smith, the former U.S. senator from Oregon whose son killed himself in 2003, at a recent news conference. "This issue touches nearly every family. It is something we can do something about. It's the work of angels."