Most of us have a hard time even saying the word, much less engaging in the all-important conversation about its prevention. But as the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., chances are, we’ve all been impacted by the heartbreaking and devastating outcome of suicide.
Despite a wealth of evidence-based approaches to reducing suicide risk and completion, the stigma surrounding this topic continues to grow. As we collectively continue to navigate an unprecedented and uncertain time in our world’s history, it is more important than ever for all of us to speak candidly about mental health, normalize preventive behavioral health practices, and advocate for increased access to support and treatment.
Understanding the Risk
The rate of suicide continues to trend upward in the United States. In 2018, suicide rates reached an all-time high before reducing slightly to 13.9 per 100,000 people in 2019.
While suicide affects every demographic, men complete suicide at approximately two times the rate of women. It is the 8th leading cause of death for people aged 55 through 64, and is impacting young people at an alarming rate as the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 through 34.
But age isn’t the only risk factor. Most patients who exhibit suicidal thoughts often have more contributing to poor mental health than age alone, including a history of depression, panic attacks, high anxiety, job or relationship problems, struggles with substance use, grief over recent loss of a loved one, and any other number of life-altering challenges.
“COVID-19 is an additional stress that is impacting the levels of suicidal ideation,” said Christine Hornung, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) at ThedaCare Behavioral Health. “The isolation and hopelessness that have accompanied this pandemic are having immediate and long-lasting effects on mental health that can’t be ignored. Without taking steps to prevent suicide, the rate and risk will continue to increase.”
Focusing on Prevention
Despite the difficulty many of us have discussing this prevalent public health issue, speaking openly about suicidal thoughts can actually be one of the best ways to prevent or lower suicide risk.
“I use the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) to assess a patient’s suicide risk and begin with a very straightforward question,” said Hornung. “I ask them, ‘Have you wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?’ The truth is, approaching the conversation in a direct way allows the patient to more easily come to terms with their thoughts and sets the tone that this is a safe, supportive space for talking openly about the challenges they are facing. From there, we can develop a safety plan to help the patient cope with the support of their family and community members.”
In conjunction with LPCs like Hornung who are interacting directly with suicidal patients, organizations such as the Northeast Wisconsin Mental Health Connection are helping to create a mentally well, stigma-free community by providing connection to mental health service providers, fostering dialogue about mental health, and encouraging collaboration of community stakeholders in addressing social and emotional wellness throughout our communities.
The Connection was developed in response to the LIFE Study, a ThedaCare Plunge, and the Mental Health Summit in 2011. During the last 10 years of operation, The Connection has supported several initiatives and campaigns to prevent suicide in the Fox Valley, including Zero Suicide, a program developed by Henry Ford Behavioral Health and supported by the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention to prevent suicide among people in the care of behavioral health and other health care providers. Project Zero, specifically, was developed to address local adult suicide prevention.
“Together with Zero Suicide, Project Zero launched an awareness campaign targeting middle-aged men, called Strong Minds 4 Men,” said Beth Clay, Executive Director, N.E.W. Mental Health Connection. “We targeted this demographic because it has the highest rate of suicide in the Tri-County area, and across the nation. We want men to understand that mental health disorders are not a sign of weakness and there is free, anonymous and convenient help available to them.”
Despite program success, Clay admits efforts like these are quite costly. That’s why community support is integral to The Connection’s ability to keep going.
“The Connection has secured over $2 million in grant funding over the last 5 years to support local suicide prevention work for youth and adults,” said Clay. “These funds employ our project coordinators, evaluators and researchers, and keep us in the driver’s seat of this critically important undertaking. Without funding and support, our coalition and its members wouldn’t be able to strategize and implement this life-saving work.”
Reducing the Stigma
Preventing suicide isn’t as simple as increasing access to community resources, however. Even more importantly, we must eliminate the stigma around mental health. By allowing people to feel less inhibited about taking charge of their mental health, they will be more likely to express their struggles with depression and work through the challenges contributing to their suicidal thoughts.
“Seeing more celebrities and notorious people share their mental health journeys is so empowering,” said Hornung. “The visibility they bring to the issue of mental health through their vulnerability and willingness to share is very powerful. For those who consider these people role models, it could be just the encouragement they need to seek help.”
Equally important is introducing the topic of mental health to children at a young age, normalizing the importance of seeking help, and providing them necessary coping skills.
“We have to focus on normalizing mental health screening as part of regular patient care and increasing help-seeking behavior among the highest risk groups,” said Clay. “With the partnership of health care providers, we can help patients of every age understand that good health is physical and mental. You can’t heal the whole person without treating each part.”
Whether you’re personally experiencing suicidal thoughts or suspect that a loved one is, there are a variety of resources at your disposal. ThedaCare Behavioral Health provides walk-in care from LPCs like Hornung for those in crisis, as well as ongoing mental health support.
You may also text “HOPELINE” to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline 24/7 at (800) 273-8255. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate emergency intervention, always call 911. EMTs can transport you to a facility where you can be evaluated and monitored until you are stable.
“The last question I ask during a diagnosis discussion is no coincidence,” said Hornung. “I implore my patients to call out the one thing that is most important to them and worth living for. There is always someone or something that comes to mind. This moment of discovery is paramount in motivating a person’s road to recovery, and it’s a direct result of them feeling empowered to have the conversation. We have to begin normalizing these conversations – each and every one of us.”
Don’t struggle with suicidal thoughts in silence. Our behavioral health specialists are here to help.