The week of Sept. 8-14 is Suicide Prevention Week. Preventing suicide involves much more than just thinking about it for one week in September, of course. But having a week focused on this problem can help all of us become more aware of the issue year-round.
Suicide is the No. 10 cause of death around the world. In the United States, a little more than one of every 100 deaths is from suicide. Suicide rates in the U.S. are slowly dropping for the population as a whole. But for certain age groups, especially those ages 35 to 64, suicide rates are going up.
Suicide is more common among people with severe psychiatric illness. It is also more common in people who feel hopeless, are facing serious life challenges and who feel they have nowhere to turn. Other factors that increase the risk of suicide include unemployment, poor physical health, easy access to guns, recent loss of a loved one and a history of abuse in childhood, among other issues. Alcohol and substance abuse make it more likely someone will act on thoughts of committing suicide.
Suicide is less common among people with strong family and social support. It is also less common among parents, especially mothers.
Can suicide be prevented? Sometimes, but not always.
By being aware of family members or friends who are going through hard times, reaching out a hand of support can be helpful. If you know of someone who is talking about committing suicide, that talk should be taken seriously. People often speak about suicide before they actually do it, hoping someone will get involved and stop them. Letting the person know that you care, that you are there for them, encouraging them to get mental health counseling or calling a suicide prevention hotline – any of these actions may help.
But suicide cannot always be prevented. Sometimes it happens even when friends and family have been offering support, or when a person has been getting mental health counseling. For family members, loved ones, and friends of someone who commits suicide, guilt is a very common emotion. While this is understandable, it is important to realize that suicide cannot always be stopped. For those left behind, it can be helpful to get counseling to come to terms with the tragedy.
Life is a precious gift. Why someone would give up that precious gift can seem mysterious. But sometimes a person faces such suffering that it seems giving up life is the only viable option.
We should all be aware of the situations that can lead someone to suicide. Extending support, offering understanding, letting the person know we are there for them, we can sometimes help turn things around.
Richard Fleming, MD, FACP is Regional Medical Director for Solano and Yolo Counties, Health Services Department, Partnership HealthPlan of California, and is a partner of Solano Coalition for Better Health