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The Importance of Speaking Out About Suicide

Suicide may be difficult to discuss, but knowledge can save lives.

In 2014, Simone Battle took her own life at age 25. The G.R.L. singer and X Factor finalist was in the midst of preparing for a concert in Dubai, according to her mother Donna Morgan, who knew something was wrong when her daughter didn’t answer the phone. Ms. Morgan, who has since become a mental health advocate, is speaking out about her daughter’s suicide so that other families don’t have to suffer.

Suicide is a very difficult topic to discuss. But silence can have tragic results, and knowledge can save lives. The message that things can get better is more important today than ever before.

Source: SandervanderWerf/Shutterstock

In 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics released a study that found suicide rates surged to a 30-year high based on data from 1999 to 2014. In 2014, 42,773 people took their own lives compared to 29,199 in 1999. The US suicide rate is now 13 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest since 1986. For young people ages 15 to 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death after accidents.

I recently spoke to suicide expert Maria A. Oquendo, M.D. who is the President of the American Psychiatric Association and Professor and Chairman of Psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Oquendo says the challenge in identifying people who are at risk is our dependence on having people self-report suicidal feelings. Dr. Oquendo’s research focuses on finding new ways to identify risk factors by using biomarkers--biological indicators—in people’s saliva, blood tests or brain scans. She believes we will eventually have a combination of tools to identify people at risk that will include a person’s mental health history, diagnosis, symptoms and biomarkers.

Until then, education and treatment are the keys to suicide prevention. Approximately 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a psychiatric condition such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder. More than 50 percent of people with mood disorders also abuse alcohol or have another dependency problem. When both are present, the risk of suicide increases.

It is imperative to make sure that families, teachers and adolescents are educated about suicide prevention. Recurrent thoughts of suicide are not normal. Like chest pain, they indicate a medical emergency that needs immediate treatment. Changes in behavior—sleeping less, sleeping too much, not eating or overeating—are also warning signs that someone needs help.

One common myth suggests that talking about suicide actually encourages people to think about it. Research has shown the opposite. Even high school students who felt suicidal and ashamed were relieved to express their feelings. Many times their desire to blend in prevented them from seeking help.

If someone needs help, parents should contact a trusted health care professional, such as an internist or pediatrician, who is familiar with resources in the community. Don’t look in the yellow pages, ask someone you know or trust.

While the vast majority of people who take their own lives have some type of mental illness, five to 10 percent of people have no identifiable illness and show no symptoms. Their death is a source of tremendous guilt and shock for loved ones who had no idea there was a problem.

According to Dr. Oquendo, this happens primarily in two types of individuals. One group is comprised of smart, capable overachievers, many of whom are talented, successful or wealthy, and function well even when depressed. For others, the decision to take their life may be an impulsive act.

Another common and false assumption is that people who want to take their own lives will always find a way. This is not true, and many people are relieved to survive a suicide attempt.

Barriers to suicide are effective methods of prevention. If you have guns in the house, keep them locked up and store ammunition in a different place. Research has shown that barriers on bridges make a difference. People who are unable to jump off one bridge don’t go to the next bridge; they don’t make the attempt.

The time has come for society to seriously address the rise in suicide by providing additional funding for suicide prevention, which comprises a small percentage of mental health research (the NIH spent just $25 million on suicide prevention projects in 2016 up from $22 million in 2012).

The good news is that mood disorders are highly treatable with medication or therapy. We can prevent suicide by being vigilant about friends and loved ones, and willing to openly discuss mental illness. People must realize that suicidal thoughts are not normal, and education can save lives.

More from Jeffrey Borenstein, M.D.
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