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Suicide Rates Are Climbing, but We Can Help Those Who Are Hurting


Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. Two recent high-profile deaths, occurring during the same week, that have turned the spotlight on suicide. Has suicide become a greater threat or is the increased media attention on suicide simply a reflection of Mr. Bourdain and Ms. Spade’s celebrity status?

A study just published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics provides timely information on suicide and the results are concerning. In 2016, suicide ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death for those between 10 and 34 years of age.

Suicide rates in the United States are climbing rapidly. From 2000 to 2016 the incidence of suicide increased by 30%. While the rate for male suicide during this time period increased by 21%, alarmingly, the suicide rate for females over the same period jumped by 50%. Although more men than women successfully complete suicide, the gap is narrowing.

Our ability to accurately predict suicidality is poor and research is generally after-the-fact. Meta-analyses of clinical findings and suicide risk assessment results have found no reliable method to proactively identify individuals who are at high risk. Those who exhibit some combination of the four most commonly cited high-risk factors (previous episodes of self-harm, suicidal intent, physical health problems and male gender) are no more likely to commit suicide than those experiencing moderate risk factors.

Recent developments in machine intelligence, combing through large amounts of bio-psycho-social information, and a combination of blood-based biomarker change and clinical questionnaires show greater promise in predicting the development of suicide ideation and the need for psychiatric hospitalization. Despite these advances, at best we are only learning to predict if suicidal intent will develop, not when.

While we may not be very good at predicting the intent to commit suicide, we can intervene when someone we care about is experiencing inner pain. The National Institute of Mental Health offers these suggestions:

  1. Ask: “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” It’s not an easy question but studies show that asking at-risk individuals if they are suicidal does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts.
  2. Keep them safe: Reducing a suicidal person’s access to highly lethal items or places is an important part of suicide prevention. While this is not always easy, asking if the at-risk person has a plan and removing or disabling the lethal means can make a difference.
  3. Be there: Listen carefully and learn what the individual is thinking and feeling. Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may, in fact, reduce rather than increase suicidal thoughts.
  4. Help them connect: Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number in your phone so it’s there when you need it: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also help make a connection with a trusted individual like a family member, friend, spiritual advisor, or mental health professional.
  5. Stay connected: Staying in touch after a crisis or after being discharged from care can make a difference. Studies have shown the number of suicide deaths goes down when someone follows up with the at-risk person.

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