What to do about rising suicide rates

A recent report from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlights increasing suicide rates in the U.S. across all ages and genders. The overall suicide rate grew 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. A key finding of the report is that, while suicide among adolescents and young adults is growing and is among the leading causes of death for those groups, suicide among middle-aged adults also is rising.

As a community, we have a responsibility to reverse this trend and save lives.

As news coverage of gun violence increases, the role of guns in suicides often is not discussed. The CDC study reports that more than one-half of male suicides and one-third of female suicides in 2014 were firearm-related.

The same legislation that prevents CDC and other public health agencies from studying gun violence prevents our best public health minds from evaluating potential science-based strategies for the prevention of suicide with firearms. In 2016, the American Medical Association called gun violence “a public health crisis” requiring a comprehensive public health response and resolved to lobby Congress to overturn legislation that for 20 years has prohibited CDC from researching gun violence.

Currently, the medical community has a basic understanding of the risk factors for suicide at the population level, which are: 1) being male, 2) having a mental illness, and 3) using drugs or alcohol, and 4) feeling hopeless and anxious. Additional research is needed to determine predictive factors – factors that, if known, can help predict whether or not a particular individual is likely to die from suicide. The only known predictive factors to date are 1) a genetic predisposition – you are more likely to die from suicide if you have a first degree family member who died from suicide, and 2) access to lethal means – your ability to get your hands on a gun or dangerous substances. Expanding our knowledge base of who, specifically, is most at risk for suicide and why would be incredibly helpful in anticipating and addressing this problem at both the national and community level.

The next step for us as a community is to ensure that once we identify individuals who are at risk, we connect them with respectful, effective psychiatric treatment. Communities – especially employers, educators, faith leaders, and other influencers – can help by fostering an organizational culture of acceptance and support. Encourage and incentivize community members to care for their mental and physical health and deconstruct barriers to disclosing an illness or asking for help.

Further, we can ensure that mental health organizations are as important to our communities as hospitals, schools, and fire stations. Atlanta is fortunate to have several world-class mental health organizations here in our backyard, including my nonprofit organization, Skyland Trail. Thanks to a community-based fundraising effort, we are expanding our program for young adults ages 18 to 26 this fall by opening a newm 32-bed treatment facility on our Rollins Campus in Brookhaven. We are proud that adults of all ages who graduate from our treatment program return to their communities to model healthy recovery and help build the supportive culture needed for others who are struggling.

This September, during National Suicide Prevention Month, I challenge all of us to get the facts and learn something new about mental health. Let’s all consider how we can leverage the positions we hold in our organizations – even in our families – to improve mental health for all of us.

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Ray Kotwicki, M.D., MPH, is chief medical officer, Skyland Trail.

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