First, let’s take a look at the problem with a bird’s eye view. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide rates were at 7.6 per 100,000 people in 1950, rising and falling until they reached 11 per 100,000 people in 2005. Mostly men are the ones in terms of actual deaths, while women average three attempts for every one by men, and the rate fluctuated to highs of near 13 and a low of around 10.
While the data shows a general rise in the suicide rate since 1950 in America, it has also done an about face. Before 1950 adults were four times more likely to commit suicide than youth, which is no longer the case, with young people listed amongst the highest frequency of victims.
Making matters worse, suicide rates have recently begun to climb yet again, with 38,364 suicides in 2010, making it the tenth leading cause of death in general (third for 15 to 24 year-olds); just behind influenza and pneumonia. To put this in perspective, this places the total suicide deaths that year as 5,000 higher than auto wreck fatalities.
2010 was also marked by the WHO as the first time that depression had become the number one disability on Earth, which is no coincidence, as most suicides are depression-induced.
Risk factors include depression, mental disorders, substance abuse issues, or a family history of any of that. Over 90 percent of people who die by way of suicide have experienced one or more of these. Being exposed to suicidal behavior in others, as well as a presence of firearms in the home, are also big factors.
Suicidal behavior is not a normal response to stress—it is a sign that something is seriously wrong, and has been linked by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and others to brains with decreased levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter tied to feelings of happiness and contentment.
Close to Home
Suicide.org reports that there is one suicide in the US every 16 minutes, many of which hit close to home for us Oregonians. Our state is consistently ranked in the top 10 for states with the most suicide deaths, currently sitting in the tenth spot with 15.2 suicides per 100,000.
Benton County with around 12 per 100,000, is on the lower end of the state spectrum, but it still has a rate higher than the national average, which NIMH reports as 11.3. Suicide in Corvallis has found itself in the spotlight in recent times with three very public suicide deaths involving Oregon State University students.
Inconclusive Public Health Models
Back in 2001 the US Department of Health published a “National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.” While working with many established tactics of suicide prevention, the overall goal was to turn the prevention efforts themselves into a larger universal public health initiative, something from which useable data and strategies could be gleaned. Unfortunately, getting all those individual community efforts and studies out there to row in the same direction at the same time never really came to pass. Needless to say, statistically valid findings have proved elusive thus far. Even at smaller scales, most of the universal public health research out there has proved inconclusive for a number of reasons. Dauntingly, screenings do not seem to be effective at detection. But there are a number of useful points that can be made anecdotally.
It does appear that suicide education of school faculties and students results in successful interventions, as does the availability of counselors and crisis workers in the community. Suicide contagion is an issue, most specifically in high schools and universities; schools do well to bring in mental health workers immediately after a suicide. Community efforts concerning domestic violence and substance abuse may also favorably affect suicide rates.
Proven Individual Intervention Strategies
What professionals have been preaching for years, based on anecdotal observations, has recently been finding statistical validation.
Firstly, self-reporting and intervention by friends, family, and acquaintances can get people to effective help.
The next step is often talking therapy. Okay, for some this will seem like just boring old counseling, but recent work by Dr. David Rudd, a leading suicidality researcher, saw a 50% decrease in reattempts after just a few sessions among samplings of military personnel. Rudd’s research specifically used a cognitive approach, but there are other talking therapies. Anecdotally, one could infer that longer range therapies and samplings would show even more dramatically favorable results.
But in short, what everyone in the helping professions has known for a long time is this: from self-report or intervention to therapy and the lives saved there, talking works.
By Stuart Jackson