Talk Saves Lives

September 10–16 was National Suicide Prevention Week. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In fact, it is the only top-10 cause of death that has increased every year for the past decade. In the United States, there were 41,149 suicides in 2013, which is about 113 suicides every day or one every 13 minutes. In Maryland, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people 15–35 and the first-leading cause of death for people 10–14. For every suicide, it is estimated that 25 people attempt to take their lives, resulting in over 1.1 million suicide attempts a year.

Sad African-American womanAlthough everyone can be affected by a mental health condition or suicidal thoughts during their life, 2013 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that males take their own lives at almost four times the rate of females. However, females are more likely than men to have thoughts of suicide. Men most commonly use firearms to take their lives, while self-poisoning is the most common method for women.

What causes someone to take their life? Suicide, just like heart disease or cancer, is a complex health issue. It most often occurs when stressors build up and create feelings of hopelessness and despair for the individual who is struggling. Stressors can be negative life events, performance pressure, unhealthy lifestyle choices, substance abuse, or a pre-existing mental health condition.

Studies show that 9 out of 10 people who die by suicide suffered from a mental health condition. Unfortunately, due to a lack of knowledge and the stigma attached to mental health, only 2 in 5 people seek help. However, people who are diagnosed early and learn how to actively manage their mental health can lead fulfilling lives.

Despite the rise in deaths, suicide is preventable. Prevention starts by raising awareness and becoming smart about mental health. What are the signs that someone is at risk? How can I see these signs in myself and others? Whom can I ask for help? How can I help someone at risk?

Most people who take their lives exhibit one or more warning signs — either through what they say or what they do. Are they talking about being a burden, not having a reason to live, or thinking about taking their life? Talking about it may seem like an obvious sign, but too often we disregard it as attention-seeking behavior and don't take the person seriously. Do take them seriously! Ask if they are OK and how you can help them.

Changes in behavior are another reason for you to reach out if you think someone is at risk of taking their own life. If you notice that someone has isolated themselves, acts recklessly, or has increased their use of alcohol or drugs, reach out to them. Ask them if they are OK. People who are considering suicide may often display one or more of the following moods: depression, loss of interest, rage, irritability, humiliation, or anxiety.

If you think someone is at risk, assume you are the only one who will reach out. Talk to them in private, listen to them, and tell them that you care about them. Ask directly if they are thinking about suicide. Encourage them to seek treatment, but avoid debating the value of life, minimizing their problems, or giving advice. Stay with them and take them to their mental health professional or the nearest hospital. There are many resources available to help you and the person at risk. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Should the person at risk be in immediate danger, call 911. You can also text TALK to 741741. A trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line will provide immediate help. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provides free trainings to learn more about how you can save a life. To find out more, please visit www.afsp.org.

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.