Every American Has a Part to Play in Suicide Prevention

It is one thing to hear in the abstract that America suffers from a stubbornly high rate of suicide and suicide attempts. But when it hits home—as it did for me years ago when a young neighbor, struggling with serious mental illness, died from suicide—we realize we have to ask some tough questions.

What could we possibly do to stop someone from taking his or her life? What are we failing to do for our neighbors and family members struggling with substance abuse or serious mental illness? What can we do to address the fact that this problem is especially acute among those whom we owe the most, our veterans? How can we fail to see when a loved one or neighbor is struggling?

The tragedy of suicide demands a proactive and coordinated response, from both the public sector and local communities and civil society. Particularly during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in September and National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week (September 11 through 17), we need to remind ourselves that working together with compassion and commitment, we can make a difference and reduce the numbers of our veterans, youth, older adults, and others dying by suicide.

The statistics on this problem are disturbing:

  • Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.
  • In 2015, nearly 44,200 deaths were due to suicide, meaning our country suffers about one suicide every 12 minutes.
  • One in 20 Americans with schizophrenia—one of the serious mental illnesses we have made a priority at HHS—die by suicide.
  • Americans with mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder die by suicide at a rate 25 times the general population.
  • Each day, according to the VA, 20 veterans die of suicide.
  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 605,000 U.S. residents died by suicide from 1999 to 2015.

This week, HHS is distributing $14.5 million in new grants for suicide prevention, under the Zero Suicide program and Cooperative Agreements to Implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. These grants will help states, tribes, and health systems run suicide prevention programs for Americans 25 years of age and older.

Each of us have an individual role to play in this fight. There is evidence that bolstering our personal and community interconnectedness can make a significant difference. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource CenterExternal Web Site Policy,  increasing the connections among individuals, family, community and social institutions can be a major protective factor for preventing suicide.

ResearchExternal Web Site Policy  shows that people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks about them in a caring way. Studies also indicate that helping a person at risk connect to a support system can reduce feelings of hopelessness and give them the people and resources to reach out to for help, whether it’s a hotline, family, friends, clergy, therapists, or others.

With our public and private partners in the National Action Alliance for Suicide PreventionExternal Web Site Policy, known as the Action Alliance, we are pursuing a public health approach that considers long-term prevention strategies, as well as crisis responses, while targeting specific vulnerable populations that are at higher risk. HHS’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funds the Suicide Prevention Resource CenterExternal Web Site Policy  and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Here are some of the available resources for suicide prevention produced through those partnerships and others:

  • The Suicide Prevention Resource CenterExternal Web Site Policy  provides staffing and other support to the Action Alliance and for Zero SuicideExternal Web Site Policy, an initiative based on the belief that suicide deaths for individuals receiving the right care are preventable.
  • If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or you think is at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), a 24-hour toll-free confidential hotline. This hotline has helped more than 6 million since its inception in 2005, routing calls within its network of more than 160 crisis centers. The Lifeline’s websiteExternal Web Site Policy has important information about how to help people in crisis.
  • Thanks to collaboration between SAMHSA and the Department of Veterans Affairs, military service members, veterans, and their families can call the Lifeline number, press “1” at the prompt and be connected to VA counselors.
  • If you’re involved in suicide prevention programming in your community, check out CDC’s Preventing Suicide: a Technical Package of Policies, Programs, and Practices – PDF.

Being a caring friend, family member, and neighbor can go a long way in preventing our fellow Americans from getting to the point of suicidal thoughts.

Back in May when we honored a couple prominent Olympic athletes for their work in raising awareness about mental health issues, I said: Never be afraid to ask, “Are you alright?  Is everything OK?  How are you doing?”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to save a life.

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