August 19, 2010
Speaking Out Against Suicide

I recently read a story on the front page of a major newspaper about the establishment of suicide hotlines aimed at soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. What I felt as I read can only be described as bittersweet: satisfaction that we are at least acknowledging, finally, the emotional suffering that is leading record numbers of our servicemen and women to end their lives, but anger that we’re not doing more to reach them before they find themselves standing on that precipice. A social worker answering a suicide hotline call from a person who has already reached that level of desperation should not be the first point of contact with the mental health system.

So I thought I would look at some numbers. As recently as 2007 suicide ranked as the 11th leading cause of death of Americans. It ranked eighth among American males and was the third leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults, ages 15 through 24. Perhaps most telling of all, a suicide occurs approximately every 17 minutes in the United States.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that suicide accounts for more deaths in the United States than HIV disease, lymphoma, leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, or ovarian cancer. It accounts for almost twice as many deaths as homicide in the United States and for 75 percent of deaths compared with breast cancer or motor vehicle accidents. In short, it is a serious killer

A sign I see everyday on my way home says: “SUICIDE: SO DEADLY: SO PREVENTABLE.” Every time I pass it I think how great that billboard is, but also how it must hurt some people to see it all the time.

We like to think of ourselves as living in a caring society, and I believe we are, but if we are to be truly worthy of that self-assessment, we need to take a good look at those numbers. We can cure many diseases. We know a great deal—but certainly not everything—about the brain and the workings of the human mind. We now understand that mental illness is biologically based, and we know the cost of failing to treat it: dashed hopes, ruined lives, and even death.

Even so, knowing that doesn’t seem to have translated into having the will, as a community, to do what is necessary to prevent these deaths even as we spend millions of dollars to try to solve problems that kill far fewer people. We know that suicidal behaviors almost always occur in people with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcohol dependence. We also know that it is very hard to get treatment for these diseases. The reasons for this are varied and are the subjects of many of my former and future blogs.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we need to look at the issues surrounding mental illness one problem at a time. We need to decide once and for all that what may seem too expensive or too divisive will, in the long run, save lives and save money. Any problem that resulted in 34,598 deaths in the year 2007 simply must be addressed.

If we don’t know enough about the issues, we need to educate ourselves. If we don’t have enough treatment centers, we need more. If we don’t have enough staff for those centers, we have to train more. Yes, it will cost money, probably a lot of money. But I would as this question: Where is that money better spent?

The mentally ill are easy to overlook. They are often odd and sometimes frightening. Their behavior is often provocative. Part of their diseases’ process is to resist or reject help. But failing to realize that our dismissal of this problem as a society is shameful and one of the great evils of our time leaves this group vulnerable and unassisted. It wrecks families and results in great tragedy and many needless deaths. It will only be addressed as more and more people speak out. I have decided to do just that. — Ann Renaud

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