September 10th is World Suicide Prevention Day. On this date every year, we pause to reflect on the impact of suicide in our families and communities and affirm the importance of prevention. Suicide is preventable, and everyone can be part of the solution. We can continue to honor the lives of those lost to suicide by collectively taking important steps towards prevention.
Suicide is a public health problem affecting all communities in King County. More than 1200 people here died by suicide from 2009 to 2013 – an average of 20 lives lost per month. Almost 40% of these deaths were of middle-aged adults, mostly men. However, suicide affects people of all ages, from young children to the very elderly. By CDC estimates, the cost of these deaths was almost $1.5 billion. This cost doesn’t take into account the emotional costs of a suicide to a person’s loved ones and community.
It is easy to feel helpless in the face of these facts, but there is a lot we can do. The theme of this year’s World Suicide Prevention Day, Connect. Communicate. Care, shows us how.
Social connectedness is one of the strongest protective factors against suicide. The definition of connectedness is just what it sounds like: how connected we are to our families, friends, communities, service providers, and others. For people who are struggling or at risk of suicide, connecting to personal or professional supports can make all the difference.
What can you do?
If someone you know seems to be lonely or isolated, reach out and connect with them. Just checking to see if someone is okay can help. It may be useful to help them connect to a 24-hour resource, like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1 for the military crisis line). The Lifeline is answered by trained counselors who can help in an immediate crisis or link a person at risk to professional supports, free of judgment.
If there has been a suicide in your community, don’t let bereaved family and friends be isolated by stigma. Help people stay connected and supported, even if you aren’t sure what to say.
State law requires that all public schools have a crisis response plan for supporting the community after a suicide, which should help keep students and staff affected by a suicide connected to support. Similar resources are available for colleges, workplaces and religious communities.
If you’re feeling isolated, reach out to someone who cares. If you’re having a hard time thinking of someone, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (press 1 for the military crisis line), 24 hours a day. Teens can call Teen Link at 866-833-6546 from 6 to 10 p.m. to get crisis support from peer counselors. Both have a crisis chat option for those who would prefer not to talk on the phone.
It can be hard to talk openly about suicide – it is a difficult, stigmatized topic many of us feel afraid to bring up, and some of us worry that talking about suicide will cause it to happen. But staying silent about suicide isolates both people at risk and people who have been affected by suicide, and it limits our ability to support one another. Communicating openly and safely about suicide is part of prevention.
What can you do?
Remember that 4% of Washington adults and almost one in five tenth grade students say they’ve seriously considered suicide in the last year. When we talk about suicide, it’s likely that someone who has been affected by suicide or considered suicide is listening. Here are some dos and don’ts:
- Emphasize that there are always options other than suicide, even for people at serious risk
- Talk about people at risk of suicide with sensitivity and respect
- Support the idea that seeking help in a crisis is normal and healthy
- Be supportive and nonjudgmental
- Know a good resource, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, in case someone you know needs help.
- Assume that suicide is not inevitable and that there are experts with a lot of experience who can help guide families and individuals through a crisis
- If you are a teen, and you are worried about yourself, a friend or peer, feel comfortable reaching out to a supportive adult with your concerns.
- Assume that people who are talking about suicide are ‘just kidding’ or ‘trying to get attention.’ Take suicide talk seriously.
- Blame or shame people after a suicide
- Talk disrespectfully about people with mental illness or imply that everyone who is mentally ill is at risk
- Use stigmatizing language like “commit suicide,” which makes people think of crime. Say “died by suicide” or “ended their life” instead.
News stories that sensationalize or stigmatize suicide can actually increase suicide rates. For ideas about how to safely report on suicide, review these guidelines.
Caring about suicide prevention doesn’t just matter when we’re communicating and connecting with our communities and loved ones. Our investment in suicide prevention needs to show in decisions made by policymakers and leaders, service providers, journalists, educators, clergy and more. Here is some of what Public Health – Seattle and King County does to show we care about suicide prevention.
- Encourage safe storage of firearms. Almost half of suicides in Washington are by firearm, and 80% of firearm deaths are suicides. This data has led to Public Health’s work on safe storage of firearms. Our LOK-IT-UP program, which helps prevent family guns from being used for suicide or crime and reduces theft of guns, is an example of a public health approach to preventing firearm suicide. Public Health sits on Washington’s Safer Homes Task Force, which is partnering with firearm retailers to raise awareness about suicide prevention among gun owners. We recently convened a statewide summit to support collaboration and better understand firearm suicide prevention strategies and plan work further with our community partners on preventing firearm suicide.
- Convene community stakeholders to expand prevention. King County’s Child Death Review brings together community partners to review what happened when a child or teen lost their life. Child Death Reviews on adolescent suicides have improved King County schools’ and service providers’ ability to help families and communities bereaved by suicide and brought to light some of the risk factors we can have a role in preventing, including educating families about safe storage of firearms and prescription drugs, and increasing communication between health care and mental health providers.