September is suicide prevention month
Sadly, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suicide remains the fourth leading cause of death for adults ages 35-54, and the second leading cause of death in younger people ages 10-34. The suicide rate increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2018. In 2019, there were close to 47,000 deaths by suicide compared to nearly 39,000 who died in car accidents. Yet consider how much thought, engineering, and safety resources go into the prevention of automobile accidents compared to suicide prevention. Countries that have made suicide prevention a public health priority have seen drops in suicide rates over time.
A close friend and teacher of mine committed suicide in his late 50’s. Like many survivors of suicide, I felt a deep sadness and regret that I was unable to help him. His life had gone off the rails — he lost his job and his partner, brought about through years of alcohol dependence. Looking ahead, I imagine he felt hopeless and despairing. A 2017 survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports, a national polling firm, found that 55 percent of adults knew of someone who had committed suicide. It’s a cause of death that impacts millions of people.
There is never a single cause of suicide. There are often multiple risk factors including health issues (depression, substance abuse, mental illness, and serious physical health conditions), environmental factors (stressful life events like divorce, job loss, financial problems, or relationship issues), and historical factors (previous suicide attempts, a family history of suicide, or childhood abuse or trauma).
Lack of access to affordable mental health care is a huge barrier. It’s difficult to find providers who have openings, and frequently there is a long wait, which can result in patients getting into a deeper and deeper depressive state. Our health care system has a long way to go to improve access to mental health care.
And, unsurprisingly, our once-in-a-hundred-years global pandemic has made a big dent in our mental well-being. A study, commissioned by the CDC this summer, surveyed over 5400 adults during the week of June 24th-30th 2020. Overall 41 percent of the respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health issue, including depression, anxiety, or a stress related disorder. Over 25 percent of youth aged 18-24 reported serious suicidal thoughts. Overall, 13 percent reported either the start of or increases in substance use. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was about three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019, and the prevalence of depressive disorder was four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019.
All of this should alert us to be on the look-out for potential signs of suicide in our friends and relatives. These signs include:
- Talk about killing oneself, hopelessness, being a burden to others, having no reason to live, feeling trapped, or experiencing unbearable pain.
- Behaviors — increased use of alcohol or drugs, social withdrawal, giving away possessions, visiting or calling people to say goodbye, insomnia, aggression, looking online for ways of killing oneself, or isolating oneself from friends and family.
- Mood — depression, anxiety, feelings of shame or humiliation, loss of interest, agitation, anger, or sudden improvement of mood.
If a friend or relative is exhibiting some of the above signs, don’t be afraid to ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts. There is no evidence that asking someone if they are feeling suicidal results in a greater likelihood of making a suicidal gesture. Indeed, it’s our connection with each other, the availability of social support, and the concern of loved ones that can make all the difference.
For more information or for help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. They have services available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for calls or online chats.