Suicide Prevention: Time to Make Change

Many of us were shocked and saddened to learn of the recent deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both apparently by suicide. Unfortunately, recent data suggests that the problem of suicide is worsening throughout the country—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the rate of suicide increased in almost every state over the past two decades. In 2016, around 45,000 Americans died by suicide.


While it is extremely difficult to predict an individual’s risk of suicide, researchers have identified important risk factors, including history of suicide attempts, substance abuse, recent life stressors, previous mental health diagnosis, and hopelessness.


Mental health treatment is a critical tool in reducing the risk of suicide. However, many individuals at risk for suicide are reluctant or unable to seek treatment. Mental health stigma (or concern over being viewed negatively by others) can be a powerful obstacle to seeking treatment.


In the aftermath of suicide, family and friends often ask themselves what signs they missed, or what else they could have done to keep their loved one safe. One of the most important protective factors is a willingness to talk openly about suicidal thoughts—there is no evidence that asking people if they are thinking about killing themselves increases the risk of suicide, and these difficult conversations can be an important step towards getting essential help. Mental health professionals can assess suicide risk in detail as well as help individuals considering suicide to challenge suicidal thoughts effectively and focus on reasons to stay safe.


Warning signs that a loved one may be imminently considering suicide include overt threats of suicide or self-harm, taking steps to acquire means to commit suicide (such as a firearm or dangerous medication), or giving away personal belongings. People demonstrating these warning signs should seek emergency treatment, such as by calling 911.


Other warning signs suggest that mental health treatment may be beneficial. These may including hopelessness, uncharacteristic anger or reckless behavior, social withdrawal, or unusual mood swings. People are often at greater risk of suicide following pronounced life stressors such as relationship loss, work changes, or medical illness. Mental health treatment at this stage can help people focus on effective coping strategies.