Can suicide be prevented?


A pilot deliberately flying a plane full of passengers into a mountain is horrific, unbelievably sad, and, thankfully, very rare.

But suicide is far from rare. Tragically, those usually lonely acts of despair are rising.    But can they be prevented?

Someone in this country dies by suicide every 12.8 minutes. The national suicide rate has increased to 12.6 suicide deaths per 100,000 and for ages 18 to 35 — the prime of one’s life — only unintentional injuries account for more deaths.

What’s doubly tragic is that most suicides are preventable as most victims tell someone they plan to hurt themselves before they act. That goes for the thankfully rare “aircraft-assisted suicide,” as well. In more than half of the cases examined over two decades, “someone knew of prior suicidal ideation before the aircraft assisted fatality.”

The Germanwings crash in the French Alps has already launched important critical assessment by airlines. But the uncommon nature of this tragedy coupled with the growing rate of suicide underscores the importance for each of us to recognize when someone is in crisis.

We do not know all the details of what Andreas Lubitz was struggling with, or if he might have told anyone of his plans. But, what we know through research is that reaching out can save a life.  There is no single cause for suicide.  But mental health conditions — often undiagnosed or untreated — play a critical role alongside other risk factors and life stressors to temporarily overwhelm a person’s ability to cope and increase their risk for suicide.

We do know that there are warning signs that all of us can learn to identify and support one another.  It’s a fact that more than one in five of us will suffer from a mental health condition at some point in our lives.

How many of us would do something if a coworker acted recklessly or angry, engaged in risky behavior or suddenly increase their alcohol use? Do we pull them aside or assume it is none of our business?

Recognizing the risk factors can save lives. Some are overt; someone threatening to kill or hurt him or herself, or seeking access to guns, pills, or other lethal means.

Some are less obvious, as suicidal people may talk or write about death or dying. They may project hopelessness, rage, anger, or that they feel trapped. Some are anxious or agitated; some may increase their use of alcohol or drugs. They often withdraw from family, or have dramatic changes in mood.

Suicide is not chosen; it happens when psychological pain exceeds one’s resources for coping with pain. We need to know more, and we need to use what we know.

That is why we believe all Americans need to know what to look for and, like with the Heimlich maneuver, or CPR, know what to do when someone is in distress. People of all ages should be trained through educational initiatives in our schools, workplaces and communities that not only raise the public’s awareness but enable us to help people at risk.

There are effective programs like Mental Health First Aid, workplace screening programs, and other mental health training programs — to know how to recognize when someone is struggling, to believe that it is acceptable to offer support, and to be confident acting on that support to refer people to professional help.

Kevin Hines, now an author and advocate, could have used intervention in 2000 when he stood on the Golden Gate Bridge contemplating leaping to his death. When a stranger approached, he thought maybe there was hope. But she was a tourist bent on having him take her picture.

She didn’t recognize his deep distress, as many people wouldn’t. He jumped.

Programs like Mental Health First Aid help people recognize the warning signs, either through what someone says or what they do. This kind of education can help us be more aware, better informed, more assertive.

It can help us be the someone who knows, the someone who helps.

Kevin, against all odds, survived the fall, and his life went on. He got another chance.

Others won’t.

Linda Rosenberg is CEO, National Council for Behavioral Health. Robert Gebbia is CEO, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.


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