For many, having an open and frank discussion about suicide is difficult, not only because of the gravity of the subject matter, but because of the discomfort that stems from not knowing the right thing to say. For others, it’s due to the long-associated stigma that society has attached to the topic. And for others still, it’s a painful reminder of a loved one who brought themselves to harm before help was offered or available.
Suicide Prevention Month, which is recognized annually in September, strives to combat these challenges by better equipping individuals to recognize the warning signs of suicide while simultaneously preparing them to aid those in crisis. By extension, it actively works to support a national dialogue on the subject, a dialogue that is essential to dismantling the feelings of isolation that surround individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts.
As a whole, a quintessential characteristic of the human condition is to reject what is different. In today’s day and age, that most frequently exhibits itself through the fear and reluctance of addressing mental illness. It is unfortunate for those suffering, however, because so often communication is an essential part of managing or overcoming the condition. This is especially true of suicide prevention.
To quote the Veterans Crisis Line, one of the primary organizations that supports Suicide Prevention Month, “We can all play a role in preventing suicide, and it doesn’t require a grand gesture or complicated task.” To further reinforce that belief, this year the organization adopted the hashtag “BeThere” as a daily reminder of the impact that we have on the people around us. The succinct phrase effortlessly captures the essence of offering effective aid.
The hope is that by continuing to support a national conversation about suicide and mental illness, the topics will gradually become de-stigmatized. Instead of feeling isolated, individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts may be more comfortable reaching out for the help and support that they need.
In support of that mission, we’ve assembled a high-level overview of suicide in the United States.
- Nearly 43,000 Americans die by suicide every year.
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States
- An American dies by suicide every 12.3 minutes
- More than 1.6 Million Years of Life are lost annually from suicide
- Veterans comprise 22.2% of suicides
* All statistics are from the CDC Web Based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System
Suicide Risk Factors:
There is no one cause for suicide. Similarly, the below risk factors (provided by the CDC) are characteristics of those who have committed suicide and do not necessarily indicate a direct cause.
- Family history of suicide
- Family history of child maltreatment
- Previous suicide attempt(s)
- History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
- History of alcohol and substance abuse
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
- Cultural and religious beliefs (e.g., belief that suicide is noble resolution of a personal dilemma)
- Local epidemics of suicide
- Isolation, a feeling of being cut off from other people
- Barriers to accessing mental health treatment
- Loss (relational, social, work, or financial)
- Physical illness
- Easy access to lethal methods
- Unwillingness to seek help because of the stigma attached to mental health and substance abuse disorders or to suicidal thoughts
Suicide Warning Signs:
Individuals considering suicide often show signs of depression, anxiety, and/or hopelessness, such as:
- Appearing sad or depressed most of the time
- Clinical depression: deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating—that doesn’t go away or continues to get worse
- Neglecting personal welfare, deteriorating physical appearance
- Withdrawing from friends, family, and society, or sleeping all the time
- Losing interest in hobbies, work, school, or other things one used to care about
- Frequent and dramatic mood changes
- Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame
- Feelings of failure or decreased performance
- Feeling that life is not worth living, having no sense of purpose in life
- Talk about feeling trapped—like there is no way out of a situation
- Having feelings of desperation, and saying that there’s no solution to their problems
- Dramatic changes or shifts in behavior.
Having an understanding of these risk factors and warning signs is an important first step in suicide prevention. As the #BeThere campaign indicates, sometimes all it takes is a text or a friendly pat on the back to alter a trajectory that could have ended in tragedy. With the understanding that something so small could have such a definitive impact on an individual and their loved ones, it’s critical to develop and maintain channels of open communication to better facilitate those interactions.
In the modern era, those channels are frequently being simplified and promoted in increasingly new and different ways by technology. And while technology is far from the magic bullet, it does provide an alternative approach to providing outreach and support. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans struggling with suicidal thoughts, who, in previous generations, may have been unable to connect with life-saving resources, now have access to a myriad of programs that range from text help lines to anonymous chat rooms, an advancement that offers unprecedented levels of support.
Some technology-facilitated communication channels, like the Crisis Text Line, have exposed demographics that are traditionally difficult to connect with, such as teens and young adults, who respond to outreach differently. Creating an effective means of communication and support for young people is of the utmost importance, as suicide is the third leading cause of death for people aged 10-24 and the second leading cause of death for those aged 15-24.
Although there is no single cause for suicide, it has been demonstrated to occur most frequently when stressors like anxiety or bullying exceed an individual’s ability to cope with the issue. More worrisome still, is the indication that one suicide triggers another, resulting in what are known as “suicide clusters”, an especially devastating event for a community. For teens and young adults that are vulnerable and, in many ways, emotionally and mentally nascent, a different type of support is needed to prevent these events.
And given that young people in those age demographics spend the majority of their time at school, school districts have a responsibility to develop and offer programs to provide their students and faculty with the resources to effectively prevent suicide, as well as cope with the aftermath. Without them, David Schonfeld explains, “Teachers worry they will say the wrong thing to a grieving student and make matters worse, start a conversation they won’t know how to continue or end, or identify issues they can’t address themselves and must refer to others. So they often say and do nothing. But saying nothing says a lot — it communicates that adults are unaware, unconcerned or unwilling or unable to help.”
In a recent AASA Feature, Glenn W. “Max” McGee, a School Administrator for the Palo Alto school district shared his personal experiences on a suicide cluster that rocked their community: “In schools I’d previously led, we had lost children to cancer and fatal accidents, but somehow this felt worse. The specter of death by suicide was beyond comprehension.”
To try and prevent other districts from experiencing their same tragedy, McGee gave insights on lessons learned for effective suicide prevention within their district:
- The crucial role of partnerships. One should never go it alone. Engage the help of experts in the field of mental health broadly and suicide prevention specifically.
- The importance of sleep. Sleep deprivation had been a common element in some of the deaths.
- The prevalence of depression. Our community pediatricians provided evidence that approximately 25 percent of students had significant mental health concerns.
- The importance of vigilant students. The students are essential experts in identifying behavior changes or worrisome social media posts among their peers and letting adults know of potential devastating problems. Provide them with evidence-based depression education.
- The role of the “suicide hotspot.” Palo Alto has what the experts call a hotspot — in our case, a speeding train that runs right through town 90 times per day. The train track is our hotspot equivalent of the Golden Gate Bridge. Eliminating, or at least restricting, the hotspot as a means of suicide is an effective prevention measure. Three of the four students in the recent cluster — and all of those in an earlier cluster — died at or near main train crossings in town.
Of an equal importance in preventative measures was the need to destigmatize counseling for parents and students alike. By creating a culture of openness and communication, McGee’s district crafted an environment where students would be comfortable asking for help, while teachers and faculty would be comfortable providing it.
Across the country, another high school in New Jersey hadn’t felt the devastating effects of a student suicide, but were living in fear of such an event occurring. David M. Aderhold, a School Administrator from the West Windsor-Plainsboro district explains, “Our students were suffering. The schools had experienced an increase in mental health assessments for anxiety, depression and suicidal ideations, along with referrals for drug and alcohol screenings. Something needed to change.”
And change it did.
Aderhold’s district quickly implemented a number of preventive changes geared towards protecting student’s mental health, including random “no homework nights” to give students the opportunity to reconnect with friends, eliminating final exams, and implementing a student-led training for teachers.
“During the past year at High School South, we administered a questionnaire to all 10th through 12th graders about how they viewed student/adult relationships”, Aderhold said “The patterns and themes that emerged suggested students lacked meaningful connections with adults.”
That lack of connection demonstrated a gap in the system, where at-risk students could slip through unreached. Aderhold went on to say:
The frightening reality for school systems is that we are all susceptible to student mental health crises, including suicide. Purposeful change needs to be championed by a network of believers.
The potential for transformative change begins with the recognition that schools are more than academic institutions. Our students need to know how much we care. They need to know we care about their full development. As such, we always must be grounded in the development of the whole child. (source)
Aderhold’s words echo the sentiments of the #BeThere campaign, which speak to a basic fundamental need for kindness and understanding. As a student at a different district who was grieving the loss of a friend shared, “Showing or reminding someone that you care has a profound effect at any time. … But the same display of care or concern during grief can mean so much.” (source)
So what can you do as an individual, friend, and family member to help prevent suicide?
The National Alliance on Mental Illness gives the following recommendations:
- If you think your friend or family member will hurt herself or someone else, call 911 immediately.
- If you are concerned about suicide and don’t know what to do, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They have trained counselors available 24/7 to speak with either you or your loved one.
- Make sure that you are actively and openly listening to the things a loved one in crisis is saying. Instead of arguing with any negative statements that he or she makes, try providing positive reinforcement.
- Educate yourself. Learning about suicide, what the warning signs are, and how it can be prevented can help you understand what you need to do as a member of their support system.
In addition, The Veterans Crisis Line has assembled a thoughtful ways to demonstrate care for the people in your life. They include:
- Learning the Signs of a Crisis
- Emailing a Friend
- Sending a Text
- Sharing a Video
- Sharing a local resource
- Calling a friend
- Sending a care package
- Bringing someone dinner
- Stopping by a friend’s house
- Meeting for coffee
- Offering to babysit
- Being a gym buddy
- Trying a new activity with a friend
- Running errands for someone
In short, any gesture, big or small, can help someone feel less alone. #BeThere for the people in your life – demonstrate an interest in their well-being, notice if they’re going through a difficult time and show your support in the ways that you are able. Have the conversation about what they’re facing and what you can do to help. And always remember, “Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
If you or someone you know needs helps now, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.
A free resource available to other school systems that was produced in conjunction with local and national experts, describes in step-by-step detail what needs to be done in both the immediate and long-term aftermath of a suicide
Find Veteran resources in your area for support in getting your life on better track
See the person, not the illness and work to help open lines of communication