Suicide isn’t always linked to a diagnosed mental health issue like depression or anxiety. Sometimes it’s the result of a confluence of routine life stressors that can push a person to his or her breaking point.
Some 47,000 Americans take their own lives each year. Young people are especially vulnerable: suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 24.
As KET begins a rebroadcast of its acclaimed youth mental health series You Are Not Alone, Renee Shaw sat down with Julie Cerel, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, to discuss her research into suicide.
Factors Contributing to Higher Suicide Rates
Between 2000 and 2016, the rate of death by suicide in the United States increased 30 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Historically more males commit suicide, but females are catching up: Suicides among women and girls increased by 50 percent in that time period.
“Fortunately most people that make one attempt will never, ever go on to make another one,” says Cerel. “But having had that one attempt, it puts some at higher risk” of dying by suicide in the future.
Cerel says they may be a number of reasons for the increase. One is that health officials are more open about acknowledging suicide as a cause of death.
“It used to be that unless there was really explicit evidence that it was a suicide,” says Cerel, “coroners or medical examiners wouldn’t call it a suicide because they thought it was helping the family.”
Media may also play a role. Cerel says coverage of celebrity suicides, especially stories that contain details of the methods used, can influence suicidal behavior in others. Some mental health professionals also attribute a recent Netflix series to a spike in suicides. Cerel says “13 Reasons Why” offered an unrealistic view of suicide that depicts how a young girl sought to use her own death as a form of revenge against the people who tormented her.
“Unfortunately when most people are suicidal, their thinking is not as systematic and clear, they just want to be out of the pain that they’ve been in,” says Cerel.
Other factors include the rise of the internet and social media, lack of access to quality health care and mental health services, and greater availability of more lethal means of death, such as weapons in the home.
“This isn’t about gun control per se,” says Cerel. “It’s more about not wanting anyone in your household, especially your child, to die by your family’s gun.”
How to Respond to Someone at Risk
The signs that someone may be considering suicide are varied. The person may begin to isolate themselves from friends and loved ones, or they may give away prized possessions. There may be increased drug or alcohol use, or their personal appearance or work or school performance may suddenly decline. They may talk about feeling hopeless or being mired in unbearable pain.
If you see these signs in a family member or friend, a co-worker or a neighbor, Cerel recommends taking a direct approach and saying, “You’ve really been scaring me. Are you thinking about suicide?”
Then you’ll need to be prepared to direct that person towards resources to help them. Cerel recommends keeping the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline emergency number in your cellphone. It’s 800-273-8255. She says operators there can provide referrals to local resources, do short-term crisis counseling, or address an actual emergency. Crisis counselors are also available by texting 741741.
Cerel acknowledges these conversations aren’t easy. Even saying the word suicide is difficult for some people. But the more comfortable we get with the language, the easier it becomes to openly discuss these critical issues, she says. Some communities and organizations offer special training in a prevention strategy named QPR, which stands for question, persuade, and refer, that any individual can take.
Life Beyond a Loss
Based on her own research, Cerel says a single suicide can impact the lives of 135 other people, from relatives and friends, to people at school, church, and work. But Cerel says she’s found that survivors can find ways to move beyond the tragedy.
“For some people, having this worst imaginable loss leads them to place in their lives they never would have been,” says Cerel. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that their life is going to be horrible forever and ever. They can end up in places much better than they might have dreamed.”
Cerel says certain occupations come with greater risk factors for mental health problems and suicide risk. For example, police and other first responders may have to deal with dozens of suicide cases over their careers. Cerel says that kind of exposure can increase the risk of suicidal behavior in the witness.
Following the death of celebrity chef and travel journalist Anthony Bourdain, Cerel and her colleagues launched initiatives to help people in the food service industry. She says the high-stress lifestyle with its irregular hours, little access to health care, and high rates of substance abuse can make restaurant workers especially vulnerable. Cerel contends such outreach efforts are critical to increasing the public dialogue about suicide.
“It’s important for us to talk about the fact that there are people that have thoughts of suicide or have made suicide attempts, and that doesn’t define the rest of their lives,” Cerel says. “People can be successful, having been treated for depression or having attempted suicide… Just because people have mental illnesses, just like physical illnesses, they don’t have to define our lives.”