The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued a tragic new report showing suicide rates in the U.S. have risen to a 30-year high. While the rise was particularly sharp among women, the report also outlined increases in rates of suicide among nearly all races and age groups.
Statistics on suicide rates in Vermont bring the issue closer to home. While the new CDC report indicates that the nation's suicide rate has risen to 13 per 100,000 people since 1986, here in Vermont the rate of death from suicide has been calculated at nearly 18 per 100,000 or roughly 80 suicides per year. This is higher than the number of deaths in our state by motor vehicle accidents or homicides. Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young Vermonters between the ages of 10 and 24.
As a mental health professional with almost 30 years in the field, I can say without question that the factors that motivate a person to take her or his own life have become increasingly complex over time: economic insecurity, experiences with trauma and violence, social isolation, racial inequality, drug and alcohol abuse, un- or undertreated mental illness, access to firearms ...the list goes on and on.
Although tackling these issues will take time and no small amount of political will, we must address them as part of our overall efforts to reduce rates of suicide. The research is clear — when people are healthier, and when they live in a world that feels safer and offers meaningful economic opportunity — drug and alcohol abuse and suicide decline.
The good news is that we have immediate and accessible tools to reduce incidents of suicide already within our grasp.
I cannot overstate the fact that suicide should never be viewed as an inevitable outcome for a person who is depressed or in despair. We have identified strategies that can effectively lower suicide among youth and adults here in Vermont and across the nation through the use of evidence-based suicide prevention and early intervention programs and resources in schools, communities, healthcare institutions, and institutions of higher education. I encourage people to learn more by checking out The Vermont Suicide Prevention Center (vtspc.org) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (suicidepreventionlifeline.org).
An important aspect of prevention is education: teaching one another (co-workers, fellow students, family members, etc.) how to spot a person who may be thinking about suicide and how to effectively approach that person. This goes for medical professionals as well. Many hospitals and healthcare providers routinely screen patients for suicidal thinking an offer treatment programs that can help. Unfortunately, many do not.
Effective suicide prevention also hinges on adopting new attitudes. The stigma around mental illness, though changing, is still pervasive and needs to be addressed. I can't wait for the day when it's as acceptable to ask someone if they are contemplating harming themselves or taking their own life as is it to ask if they have a fever or sore throat. It's a paradigm shift that will take time before it becomes second nature. In the meantime, a little interpersonal discomfort is an extremely small price to pay when a life is on the line.
Louis Josephson, Ph.D., is the President and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat.