Our Suicide Prevention Myths—Doing What Works

Nearly everything we claim to be doing for mental health is useless.

Posted Oct 15, 2018

Recently, I have written about our strange mental health paradox: our simultaneously increasing suicide rate and radically accelerated medical treatments for addiction.

Research psychologists Jim Coyne and Joan Cook have provided a list of our missteps and erroneous beliefs in this area: 

I. Unhelpful Efforts

1. Marches, vigils and memorials don’t decrease suicide. 

Dr. Stan Kutcher, an expert in mental health research and policy, whose work has been conducted in over 20 countries, agrees. “I have never seen any evidence for this or any similar interventions that they lessen suicide rates. . . .”

2. Anti-stigma campaigns, which encourage people to seek treatment for depression, have no measurable impact on suicide.

“Despite extensive education targeted to the public to improve awareness of depression and suicide and combat the associated stigma, no study has demonstrated that this helps increase care seeking or decrease suicidal behavior. . . .”

3. The most targeted populations are not necessarily the highest risk populations.

“Suicides among teens are particularly tragic, but relatively speaking, this is not a high-risk group... Native Americans have high rates of suicide and also low accessibility of acceptable, culturally appropriate services. We need to focus on these high risk groups.” 

4. Screening for depression and suicidal ideation in primary care or general medical clinics does not improve outcomes.

In fact, screening can be counterproductive by producing referrals for low-risk people, making it harder for those who need immediate care to get help.

II. Effective Steps

1. Screening high-risk groups; for example, following up with those who have recently attempted suicide. 

2. Means reduction, meaning removing guns and other modus operandi from at-risk people.

(The following are from the CDC’s website)

3. Strengthen economic supports by strengthening household financial security Ÿand stable housing options.

4. Promote connectedness through peer and community engagement activities.

5. Teach coping and problem-solving skills, including social-emotional management and parenting skills and family relationship programs.

Of course, these effective means for preventing suicide require systematic social, community, and government action, rather than emotionally appealing, quicksilver media efforts and rhetoric.