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Vol. LXIII, No. 22
October 28, 2011

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Suicide Awareness Day Marked by Frank Discussion

NIMH’s Dr. Jane Pearson moderates the recent videocast, Suicide in the U.S.: Finding Pathways to Prevention, which honored World Suicide Awareness Day.
NIMH’s Dr. Jane Pearson moderates the recent videocast, Suicide in the U.S.: Finding Pathways to Prevention, which honored World Suicide Awareness Day.

Every year, an average of 35,000 suicides occur in the United States—twice the number of homicides. Worldwide, more than 1 million people die by suicide each year. More than a decade ago, advocates successfully pushed to get suicide on the public radar, which prompted Congress to pass a resolution to address suicide as a public health issue. Since then, Sept. 10 has been declared Suicide Prevention Awareness Day. But despite the progress that has been made, suicide does not get the same attention as many other public health issues.

On Sept. 7, suicide prevention experts met to address this complex issue in an event sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. Rather than featuring presentations, the event was designed to address attendees’ many questions, most of which were submitted ahead of time. NIMH’s Dr. Jane Pearson, who chairs the NIMH Suicide Research Consortium, moderated the event.

Panelist Dr. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, emphasized the need for use of appropriate language when describing suicide. For instance, the term “committed” to describe a completed suicide is avoided, because suicide “is not a sin or a crime,” he said. He also noted that new media guidelines have been developed to help journalists report suicide stories responsibly. In addition, states and religious groups have changed their approach to suicide by emphasizing help-seeking by those in crisis. “Now we have a more compassionate response,” said fellow panelist Dr. Sherry Davis Molock of George Washington University.

Reidenberg also addressed a common fear—if you ask someone if they are thinking of suicide, will you put the idea in their head? The answer is no. “Research shows us that it is actually helpful to people if you talk about it with them. It gives them a sense of connection, when they are in the midst of feeling disconnected,” he said.

Suicide rates vary among different groups. For example, older white males are more likely than other groups to die by suicide. Yet the rates among African-American males of the same age are much lower. Molock posited that there may be protective cultural effects at play. In some groups, such as rural populations, access to care is limited and help-seeking is generally not encouraged.

“We need to make it culturally okay to seek help among vulnerable groups,” she added.

In addition, although the rate of suicide among veterans historically has been lower than in the civilian population, that trend has reversed in recent years. “It is a complex problem with no simple solution, but a lot of effort is being put into understanding and reducing the rate,” said Dr. Richard McKeon, chief of the Suicide Prevention Branch at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “For instance, the VA has put [caregivers] in every VA facility in the U.S” to prevent suicides among veterans.

Other questions focused on what communities can do to tailor their approach to suicide screening and prevention. There are many screening tools available. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center, at, collects and organizes these tools and best practices, said Dr. Jerry Reed, SPRC director. But the challenge is figuring out which is most applicable. The same can be said of prevention approaches. The key is to know your community, leverage support and tailor your approach accordingly.

The panel reminded everyone that we can help save lives by continuing to talk about suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) anytime. NIHRecord Icon

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