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Posted September 24, 2018 by Renee Fierro, Director, Behavioral Health Outpatient Services
September is designated as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, in conjunction with Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day held on September 10. Events held on this day focus on raising awareness that suicide IS preventable, providing education and information about suicide, and decreasing the stigma associated with suicide.
Despite these (and other) efforts, suicide statistics tell a grim story. Just to cite a few examples, suicide rates have been on the rise since 1999.It is the 10th leading cause overall of deaths in the United States, and the second leading cause of death for young people, age 15-24. For every completed suicide, it is estimated that there are 25 attempts. Males are four times more likely to complete suicide than females. Middle-age adults have shown some of the sharpest increases in suicide statistics. In 2016 they made up 26.1% of the population, but 36% of suicides. Locally, Summit County Public Health has also reported an increase in suicides within Summit County from 2011 to 2017, rising at a rate higher than national statistics have shown. But, suicide is much more personal than just a bunch of numbers!
I’ll never forget my first experience with suicide very early in my career, more than 20 years ago. I was a mental health therapist who occasionally worked on-call crisis. I was sent to an Emergency Room to meet with the family of a young teenager who had committed suicide. I still vividly remember walking into the room with the family, having no idea what to say, and trying to comprehend in my own head how a young teenager makes the decision to complete suicide! It’s been reported that for each suicide, there are six people who are intimately involved with the individual, now known as “survivors.”
In meeting with the family, I discovered that one of those survivors was an active patient of mine (small world). I remember driving home after meeting with the family and sobbing in my car. I was crying over something I could not comprehend, the loss of life of a young person I had never even met, and for the survivors who had no idea what to do next. A few days later, I was given the young person’s suicide letters to sit down and share with the survivors… the parents, a teacher and three best friends (coincidentally? 6 people).
This task was probably too big for such a young therapist, but the entire circumstance was the catalyst for my interest in developing a better understanding of suicidal behavior and suicide prevention and education. Crisis work soon became one of my passions and specialties. While suicide rates have continued to rise, I still believe that suicide IS preventable. I also believe that stigma and lack of understanding the signs of suicide are the biggest barriers to reducing the suicide rates.
One of the most interesting statistics to me through the years is that, consistently, there are more than twice as many suicides than homicides annually in the United States. In 2016 there were 44,965 suicides and 19,362 homicides nationally. I believe this speaks greatly to the stigma that surrounds suicide. Almost never does an evening news report go by without a story about a homicide, yet we only hear about suicides occasionally, and often only when they involve someone famous. I believe this presents an opportunity to either “glorify” suicide, or to distance it from the “real world.” Research has indicated that 4% of adults have suicidal thoughts at any given point in time. It is highly likely that we all know someone who has experienced suicidal thoughts, whether we know about their thoughts or not, which means we ALL have the opportunity to impact overall suicide rates.
Suicide prevention requires EVERYONE, not just mental health professionals. Let’s face it, the professionals can only address what they see in front of them. We may know the right questions to ask, but we can only go by what the individual tells us when answering the questions. This often allows us to identify suicidal ideation and address it directly, but not always. Mental health professionals work with individuals to address their clinical concerns, guiding them through their recovery journey, but this is a process that occurs over time, not in one session. There are a multitude of factors that impact suicide risk, and the level of risk can change from one day, even one moment, to the next. This is why family and friends can, and do, play a critical role in suicide prevention because they KNOW the individuals and their habits and behaviors. In addition, research has also found that a high number of individuals who completed suicide were not receiving professional care during the six months leading up to the time of their death, so the professionals never even have an opportunity to intervene.
There are a variety of ways you can learn about suicide risks, protective factors, and how you can help prevent a suicide. First and foremost, do not be afraid to use the term “suicide.” Research shows that people often report a sense of relief when someone asks them if they are having thoughts of suicide in a caring way. Because those experiencing suicidal thoughts often feel hopeless and alone, connecting them to a support system is also very important and helpful. Personal and community interconnectedness can serve as a protective factor against suicide.
If you are concerned that a family member of friend is at risk of self-harm, call 911. Other ways in which you might intervene include:
Summa Health has inpatient psychiatric and detoxification services available for those in need of that level of care. In addition, the Summa Health Behavioral Health Institute provides a variety of outpatient treatment options for those suffering from suicidal ideation, mental health or substance use disorders. If you are interested in outpatient behavioral health services, please contact us at 330.379.9836 to schedule your initial assessment (typically offered same day/next day) to begin your recovery journey.