Suicides in Minnesota rose 6 percent last year, extending a slow but vexing trend and reaching the highest level since the state began tracking them in the early 1900s.

Minnesota recorded 726 suicides for 2015, up from 686 in the prior year, the Department of Health said Wednesday.

Last year's increase largely reflected a rise in suicides among men, particularly white men ages 25 to 34.

"Working-age white males continue to be an area where we need to do more work and we need to do better work," said Melissa Heinen, a suicide epidemiologist for the Health Department.

Suicides declined among Minnesotans under 25, and state prevention campaigns at least stabilized suicide death rates among middle-aged men and American Indian youths, Heinen said.

Wednesday's data release is part of an enhanced state suicide epidemiology program, which is receiving earlier access to death records involving suicides with the aim of providing real-time solutions.

"We actually can look to see if there is a contagion or a cluster" of suicides in a particular region or demographic group, Heinen said.

Firearms continue to be the most common means of suicide, and are more commonly used by men.

Nationally, the rising suicide rate among white adult males has pushed the group's overall death rate higher, with deaths linked to misuse of prescription opioids or heroin also playing a role. Heinen said the profiles of people who die by suicide often resemble those who die by opioid overdose, and that improved substance-abuse treatment can help both populations.

State officials released the data at the Wilder Center in St. Paul alongside three relatives of Minnesotans who died by suicide.

Karen Evans choked up describing the death of her 23-year-old daughter, whose anxiety and stress became apparent after she left home for college. Studies have shown that the transition is a common time for previously latent mental health problems to emerge.

"Her school counselor said she was not one of those students [on her] radar," Evans said. "I think it was there, of course. Hindsight is always 20-20. But … the stress of college weighed on her."

Kara Nelsen also spoke, discussing her brother, an urban professional who died by suicide at age 32.

While her brother was struggling with a failing relationship and abusing opioids before his death, he was outwardly happy and defied the stereotype she imagined — someone who is gloomy and dressed in black.

"My perception of the type of person who commits suicide and wants to end their life is so far from what my brother was," Nelsen said.

The new figures show that suicides among Minnesotans younger than 25 declined from 119 in 2014 to 114 in 2015, and state officials credited prevention strategies along with an effort to expand mental health access statewide by placing therapists in some schools.

The grieving relatives encouraged people with concerns about friends and relatives to intervene earlier and fight for mental health services that can be in short supply.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744