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Suicide Rates Rise Again. Here Are Some Ways We Can Stop It.

For the past decade, there hasn’t been much good news about the suicide rate in the U.S. Unfortunately when the CDC released its report on 2018 mortality rates on Jan. 30, the latest numbers follow this trend. In 2018, the overall suicide rate increased by 1.4% — which, not insignificantly, is less of a jump as it has been in years past, but still a jump none the less, making this the 13th year in a row the suicide rate has increased.

Reducing suicide is complex. From why people kill themselves, how they kill themselves, whether or not they seek support and the kind of support they receive, there are a number of factors at play that all intersect with poverty, race, trauma, culture and community.

To get some insight from the people on the ground — from both leading suicide prevention non-profits and advocates with lived experience — we asked seven people in the suicide prevention space two questions: 1. What do we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate? 2. What gives you hope?

Their answers reveal what great work is already underway, but more importantly, some of the ways we need to be thinking differently in the next decade. Because at the end of the day, a reduced suicide rate isn’t just about stopping people from killing themselves — it’s about giving people lives they want to live.

Here’s what they told us:

*Some answers have been edited for length and clarity:

“We have to fund comprehensive community-based suicide prevention on an on-going basis, not just once.” — Jonathan B. Singer

Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D, LCSW, President of the American Association of Suicidology, associate professor of social work at Loyola University Chicago, and co-author of “Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner’s guide to multilevel prevention, assessment, intervention and postvention.”

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

“Before I give my three points, I wanted to say that reducing suicide rates are important, but only if we are simultaneously improving people’s reasons for living. My three main points would be:

1) Limit access to firearms. [There has been] some excellent work in the past few years demonstrating that states that have laws requiring background checks and waiting periods have lower suicide rates by firearms than states that do not.

2) Fund comprehensive community-based suicide prevention. Analysis of a decade’s worth of data involving 12 tribal nations and 48 states showed that comprehensive suicide prevention programming, including education and awareness and gatekeeper training, reduced the youth suicide rate. Two years after programming ended, suicide rates returned to their pre-programming levels. The implication is that we have to fund comprehensive community-based suicide prevention on an on-going basis, not just once.

3) Invest in approaches that center the lived experience of people from specific communities. For example, Alaska Natives have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States. Placing the experiences, traditions, metaphors and narratives at the center of efforts to build lives worth living among Alaska Native youth should take precedence over programs that were developed by non-native people. I am not an advocate for throwing out White/Western theories, methods or techniques that have been shown to reduce suicide or build hope. But assuming they will work with non-White communities is part of the problem.”

What gives him hope: 

“The flip side of all the press is that the general public and politicians are willing to have conversations about suicide prevention. Suicide by firearm has caught the attention of politicians who have never entertained firearm safety legislation. Some have signed on to legislation that increases firearm safety.”

“White supremacy, capitalism and other forms of systemic discrimination have direct linkages to unlivable conditions that drive people to suicide.” — Jess Stohlmann-Rainey

Jess Stohlmann-Rainey, researcher, trainer, and advocate serving as the Director of Program Development at Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners 

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

“We need to shift our thinking from the hyper-medicalized understanding of suicide that dominates mainstream suicidology and suicide prevention. White supremacy, capitalism and other forms of systemic discrimination have direct linkages to unlivable conditions that drive people to suicide. As a field we have done next to nothing to address these concerns within our work; refusing to acknowledge our past and current violence against the people we purportedly serve will continue to prevent us from achieving our goals. We need to address inequity and power, eliminate coercion and put our resources into community driven solutions instead of the one-size-fits-all approaches.”

What gives her hope:

“Hope has been used as weapon of compliance, and I refuse to feel hopeful about a field that continues to actively participate in my oppression. I am encouraged by growing resistance from the lived experience communities and the increasing availability of peer support. I will feel hopeful when it is warranted, but the field’s dedication to oppressive strategies and ideologies in the face of the abject failure of mainstream suicide prevention represented by these data does not deserve our hope.”

“We have to take the trauma out of the treatment.” — Kelechi Ubozoh

Kelechi Ubozoh, advocate and co-editor of “We’ve Been Too Patient: Voices from Radical Mental Health

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

“We have to take the trauma out of the treatment. Research tells us that psychiatric hospitalization is associated with an increased risk to suicide. Being punished for experiencing unbearable pain simply does not work. We need connection not isolation. For communities of color and queer and trans communities, calling law enforcement during a mental health crisis can also escalate situations. We need peer respites and innovative solutions that won’t re-traumatize folks and make them unlikely to reach out for connection when they need it. We need to understand that suicide impacts every community, and that these communities understand what healing looks like. They need to be engaged in building prevention models, safety nets and connection that is reflective of their lived experience and culture.”

What gives her hope:

“I do believe that just like people, systems can get better, stronger, healthier and smarter. This is only effective if those most impacted by the systems are leading the redesign, delivery and transformation. It is not too late to listen to people with lived experience and to center us in the work.”

“We have to take a public health approach to suicide prevention since suicide is complex with no single cause.” — Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman

Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Vice President of Research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention 

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

“We have to take a public health approach to suicide prevention since suicide is complex with no single cause. We have a national strategy and we need to implement on a national scale. We need to learn more about suicide through research and use the findings to develop evidence-based interventions and treatments. Public interventions may include raising awareness about mental health and suicide and building resilience and capacity to manage stress, since we all face stress. This can start early on in schools and with family and friends. We particularly want to help those with a combination of risk factors such as early trauma, severe stress, family history of mental health conditions and suicide, head trauma, chronic health problems and pain. We need to raise awareness that having suicidal ideas or behavior is nothing to hide and that there is support available.

We also need to train all health clinicians — primary care, behavioral health, health specialists, to assess mental health and suicide risk. We now have ways to help people manage suicidal ideation so they don’t act on it and die. Advocacy is a means by which we can work for the resources that are needed for research, education and services and support for all Americans.”

What gives her hope: 

“I have hope because over 90 percent of people surveyed in a recent Harris poll believe that suicide can be prevented and they want to help. This was not true 10 years ago. While there is a will to help, less than a third of people feel they know how to help. We can certainly raise knowledge and improve attitudes and behavior for suicide prevention.”

 Suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach, including additional policies and investment in research and crisis services. — Rob Todaro 

Rob Todaro, Press Secretary, The Trevor Project

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

Suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach, including additional policies and investment in research and crisis services. That’s why in addition to our 24/7 crisis intervention services, The Trevor Project operates innovative education, research and advocacy programs. We continue to actively advocate for new suicide prevention policies from the top down, including working with the FCC to recognize LGBTQ youth as a high-risk population for suicide and on 988, the three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and working in several states to pass legislation that mandates local school districts implement suicide prevention policies using best practices from the Model School Policy on Suicide Prevention.”

What gives him hope:

“This new data does actually offer hope that suicide prevention efforts are making a difference — the increase in lives lost to suicide between 2017 and 2018 was half of what the increase was from the prior year. Every life saved is a victory. At The Trevor Project, we work hard every day to remind LGBTQ young people that they should be proud of who they are and that they are not alone. We must remain optimistic to give youth hope for the future.”

“We need to actively advocate for increased attention and money toward suicide prevention at local, regional and national levels.” — Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell, Director of Public Relations and Media, American Association of Suicidology

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

We need to fund research on the causes of suicide at the scale of the problem. Stigma is down, and yet the rate continues to increase, so we can definitively say that awareness is not the issue. Suicide and suicide prevention research is funded at fractions of the amounts for things like dietary supplements, asthma and other ailments that impact or kill far fewer people. And we’re not talking a few dollars here and there, we’re talking hundreds of millions. The suicide loss and attempt survivors in this country deserve for suicide prevention to be taken seriously because at this point it hasn’t been.

We also need to reflect, as an entire field, that what we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. We need to look internally and not let our egos get in the way. We need to understand that we can and should be asking ourselves how we can do better. And we absolutely must stop speculating. It doesn’t benefit anyone for our field or the media to boil down such a complex issue into easy soundbites that make us feel better at the end of the day. Our work requires a level of respect it has not yet been granted.

Attention must also be paid to things outside of the crisis intervention/ postvention spectrum, but farther ahead of peoples’ crises. What work are we doing to help people create lives worth living?

Recent research shows that increasing the minimum wage by only a $1 can reduce suicide rates. Helping people feel more connected, less isolated and accepted by their loved ones can greatly reduce thoughts of suicide, or at the very least, provide support during those times. A CDC report from 2018 indicated that over half of folks who die from suicide don’t have a mental health diagnosis at the time. This means that not everything can be solved with treatment or medication all of the time. That’s not to say that those things don’t work for some. But there has to be a concerted effort to work with a person to find those things that give them hope and life-drive, rather than coercing them into a standardization of care for which we have little to no evidence of its effectiveness.

What gives him hope:

“It’s hard to be discouraged when we see all the attention suicide prevention is getting at the national legislative level. More and more congresspeople and federal employees who have been affected by suicide are leading the drive toward effective legislation targeted at military support and resources, a new 3-digit national suicide prevention and mental health hotline, increased access to mental health treatment, and so much more. My heart swelled recently as my colleagues and I read this recently introduced House bill, stating its purpose was to support suicide research. After years of work toward these goals, we start seeing things like this, The Advancing Research to Prevent Suicide Act. We have so much more work to do, but this gives me hope.”

“It’s essential that this conversation continues and that there is a space for those hurting to acknowledge and address what they are facing without stigma or shame.” — Katie Mumper

Katie Mumper, Social Media + Communication Manager, To Write Love on Her Arms

What we have to do in the next decade to reduce the suicide rate:

“We think it’s essential that this conversation continues and that there is a space for those hurting to acknowledge and address what they are facing without stigma or shame. We also believe in the power of professional help, and our hope is to see even more people connect to the care they deserve throughout the coming years.” 

What gives her hope:

“In regards to the data reported by the CDC, we’re finding hope in the fact that the numbers have increased by a smaller percentage than the previous year. To us, this is proof that more people are receiving the help and support they need. We are also encouraged by the work of those who are showing up every day to create hope and make professional mental health care more accessible. We hear from people who are fighting, who are choosing to stay, who are finding an empowered voice in the conversation, and that’s what keeps us going.”

What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.

Getty image via tadamichi