The recent passing of beloved TV personality Anthony Bourdain and fashion icon Kate Spade has pushed suicide back into the cultural dialogue spotlight. Social workers who work in suicide prevention every day remind us, however, that suicide is, and always has been, part of the human condition and not the dramatic exception that celebrity suicide seems to suggest.
What Does Suicide Really Looks Like
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
- There are 44,965 suicides every year in the U.S.
- 123 suicides per day.
- Middle-aged white males account for 7 out of 10 suicides.
The Suicide Stigma
Social workers tell us that the stigma surrounding suicide leads to severe under-reporting. In 2015, 505,507 people visited a hospital for injuries due to self-harm. That means 10 times the number of people who actually commit suicide, attempt suicide. Based on the 2016 National Survey of Drug Use and Mental Health it is estimated that 0.5% of adults aged 18 or older made at least one suicide attempt. This translates to approximately 1.3 million adults.
No One is Talking
Patients suffering from depression and bipolar disorder, doctors treating depression, social work professionals, parents of suffering teenagers, and educators all tend to avoid even mentioning the word suicide when interacting in a clinical setting. “This is because of the stigma our society places on the act of taking one’s own life. And this silence is the primary reason we have had little impact on the suicide rate since the beginning of the 20th century,” one social worker shared with me. Here’s how the professionals are trying to get suicide out into the open
Barbara Stanley, PhD
“Suicide is not all or nothing. Our studies show that suicidal feelings come and go. The urges can and do dissipate.” In a clinical setting, Dr. Stanley’s studies suggest that we can help patients understand that the urge “to end it all” will pass. If we can find a way to get them past each crisis moment we can help patients continue life’s journey with hope.
Dr. Virna Little, PsyD, LCSW-R, SAP, CCM
Doctor Little is Associate Director for Clinical Innovation at The Center for Innovation in Mental Health (CIMH) at City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health. She believes that suicide deaths for individuals under care within health and behavioral systems are preventable. She believes in what she calls, Zero Suicide.
“We believe through systemic and comprehensive changes in healthcare – we can prevent suicides. If ever there was a time to do something, it would be now. The global implications are huge. Globally we lose 800,000 people per year to completed suicides, 40,000 a year in the United States. We want to change the perception that these deaths are not preventable.”
Dr. Little’s group is working on a questionnaire that will identify every patient’s suicidal tendencies to the mental health practitioner and enable them to immediately talk bluntly about suicide with a vulnerable patient and help them get beyond the “passing urge” identified by Dr. Stanley
Matthew Wintersteen, PhD
Dr. Wintersteen has begun an initiative for suicide prevention in general and pediatric practice. “We have designed four standard questions that when inserted into a standard pediatric questionnaire alert the doctor to otherwise completely undetected suicidal tendencies. This offers the practitioner the opportunity to ask a person if they are thinking about suicide.” The theory is that if clinicians can get suicidal thoughts out in the open they can be dealt with at the critical moment.
Talk Saves Lives
The consensus of our colleagues who work in suicide prevention is that the stigma attached to suicide has kept these impulses in the shadows and prevented practitioners from helping patients get beyond urges that are not permanent but come and go. Suicide is part of the human experience. Let’s get it out in the open and help one another replace despair with hope at the passing moments of deep depression.