Suicide Prevention Isn’t Easy, But It Is Definitely Possible

couple hugging supportively

Suicide is hard to talk about and hard to study. That makes suicide prevention hard, too.

No story of suicidal thoughts, feelings, or actions is ever a simple one, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Or, put another way, suicide doesn’t have a clear cause and effect. Sometimes risk factors that increase suicide attempts are different from the risk factors that may lead to death.

Suicidal behaviors emerge from a highly complex array of determinants. Variables range from psychological pathologies to behavioral patterns to social environments to neurological functions to physiological issues to societal stressors.

Depression isn’t always the clear-cut culprit. Money, relationships, jobs, illnesses, isolation, substance use, and a host of other factors may play a role. As the CDC has noted, many people who die by suicide have no known mental health diagnosis.

Trying to connect potential causes into a cohesive picture isn’t easy. It’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from different boxes. Even health professionals and researchers don’t really know who is likely to suffer or die from suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Many recent studies have assessed the ability of professionals, programs, and/or models to predict suicidal behavior in a wide range of contexts. Unfortunately, to date, most have found that predictors remain complicated and inconsistent. Overall, they do not tell us enough to reduce or prevent suicidal thoughts or actions effectively. While research continues to shed vital light on suicide’s harsh landscape, the sky remains dark. We still struggle to untangle the effective sources of suicide, even as we make significant progress forward.

image of scattered puzzle pieces

What Can We Do?

It’s critical that we continue to strive for and gain knowledge about this complex issue. It’s critical that those who suffer from suicidal ideation know that these afflictions can be overcome while getting the support and treatment they need. And it’s critical that we take action to prevent and reduce risk factors. Because no problem goes away by ignoring it. Especially one as complex as this.

Despite extensive reduction efforts, suicide persists, with rates rising nationwide nearly every year. In Ohio, our home state, the number of deaths from suicide increased 44.5 percent since 2007. (Meanwhile, the total state population grew by less than 2 percent in that same time frame.)

For young people in particular, mortality rates due to suicide — both nationally and statewide — are deeply concerning. “Suicide is the leading cause of death among Ohioans ages 10-14 and the second-leading cause of death among Ohioans ages 15-24,” former Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton noted in November.

Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised further concerns about suicide rates in our home state. We also have seen troubling rises in rates of suicide deaths among our Black youths nationwide during the last few decades, as we’ve previously noted. Unfortunately, Ohio — and Cleveland in particular — has been no exception.

Suicide, Guns, and Lethal Means

Just like the factors that influence and cause suicidal thoughts and behaviors come from a multitude of sources, no one-size-fits-all solution exists. But some specific focuses may help move the needle — and save lives from a preventable disease.

For the past several years, discussions of mass gun violence have dominated national headlines. But we also must not forget the relationship between suicide and guns. Most firearm-related deaths are suicides. And most deaths from suicide are firearm-related. Or, more simply: If someone dies from a gun, they most likely killed themselves. If someone died from suicide, they most likely used a gun. This is an important piece of addressing rising suicides as a public health issue.

graph showing that both most deaths from suicide and most deaths by firearms are suicides by firearms
Data source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (24 June 2019). “Deaths: Final Data for 2017.” National Vital Statistics Reports, 68(9), 35-51.

Studies show a strong correlation between access to guns and higher rates of suicide deaths, including among youth. A firearm is more likely to kill than most other methods. Despite evidence that men and boys experience less suicidal ideation and attempt suicide less frequently than other gender groups, boys and men in the U.S. are more likely to die from suicide. This likely is due in part to use of more lethal means, such as guns, when they attempt suicide.

Because of all this, when we assess for suicide risk we ask about access to methods of suicide such as firearms. Of course we want to prevent and reduce suicidal ideation and attempts, too, as well as the social causes behind them. But reducing access to the most lethal means will help keep people alive and safe.

Suicide Prevention IS Possible

We also need to address the stigma of suicide as a society. Blaming and shaming save no lives. As recommended by health agencies and advocacy groups, we avoid saying that victims “committed” suicide. Instead, we say they “died from” suicide. It’s a small but significant indication of the importance of language on our psychological well-being.

We need to address the stigma of suicide as a society. Blaming and shaming save no lives.

The best solutions for reducing negative mental health effects always include creating and building supportive, inclusive, and informed communities. Suicide prevention is no exception. That’s why community-building is such a focus of our work at OhioGuidestone and the Institute of Family & Community Impact.

We also know that this work is far from over. More information and help are available for those in danger of suicide than ever before. For years, suicide prevention advocates have engaged in efforts to reduce deaths from suicide. They’ve raised awareness of its prevalence and tried to remove the stigma from suicide and mental health issues in general. This work is vital. But it’s just one step on the journey to save lives from suicide.

We need to identify solid, strong, evidence-based predictors of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. And we need to change and modify our public policies accordingly. Suicide is preventable. By working together and trusting each other, we can help those most vulnerable, most in pain, and most in need.

If You Are Experiencing Suicidal Thoughts …

Go to the nearest emergency room, or call 911 or the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (available 24 hours a day, seven days a week). You also can text “HELLO” to 741741.

Further Resources

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