We Still Don’t Fully Understand Suicide. But We Do Know What Reduces It

Life handed us a one-two-three punch last week. Tuesday morning, we learned of Kate Spade’s suicide. On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report showing a 25% increase in suicide deaths since 1999, the year the U.S. Surgeon General declared suicide a preventable public health problem. And Friday morning, we awoke to the news that Anthony Bourdain took his own life.

The deaths and statistics were shocking. Spade added color and whimsy to a hyper-intellectual fashion industry. Bourdain brought his bad-boy irreverence to a culinary world devoted to tradition. Their products—purses and food exploration—brought joy to so many people. None of it made sense. Why did they kill themselves?

We still don’t know exactly why people die by suicide. But we do know some things that increase risk for suicide, including access to firearms, loneliness and social isolation, and inadequate mental health services.

If we’re going to reduce suicide deaths, we need to see firearms as a safety issue, not a Second Amendment issue. In 2016, 23,000 people killed themselves using a firearm. Research has shown that firearm background checks and waiting periods significantly reduce suicide.

Should we restrict gun access to those without a known mental illness? Not according to the June 8 CDC report: Significantly more people without a known mental illness (55%) died by firearm than did people with a known illness (40%). This suggests that if we want to save lives, we need to make firearm safety a population-wide issue.

We also need to shift our cultural priorities away from fame and fortune at all costs and toward community and connection. Thomas Joiner, psychologist and suicidologist, suggested that one of the main factors in suicide is loneliness. The great American promise is that we can be whatever we want to be. The great American tragedy is that most of our institutions—from schools to corporations—expect us to get there by sacrificing time with friends and family.

We need to address well-being starting in kindergarten, not wait until a high school student tells us they want to die. We need schools to say, “Spend time with family, not on homework.” We need universities to say, “We’d rather see a photo of you having a great time with your friends than another extracurricular activity on your college application.” And we need stockholders to say, “We value employee family time as much as overtime.” The more time we spend with our loved ones, the easier it is to see when things are going wrong, connect them to people who can help, and help them build lives worth living.

We need to harness technology for social good. This means partnering with tech giants to analyze data so we can identify patterns of risk and automate interruptions. Social networks have learned how to nudge users to buy products. What if we could use that information to learn which nudges redirect emerging suicide risk and prevent self-harm? If the rise in youth suicide risk is correlated with smartphone use, as an influential 2017 study suggested, there is an ethical imperative for tech giants to partner with suicide prevention experts to share data, develop scalable automated interventions, and prevent suicide.

Last week we were all affected by the tragedy of suicide. This week we move forward with the work of suicide prevention, work that is fundamentally about hope. If you are inspired to save lives, check in with people you love and care about—even if they seem like they are living the dream. Donate to your local crisis hotline. Call your representative and tell them to fund suicide prevention at the same level as we fund smallpox. There’s always something you can do, no matter how small.

If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “start” to 741-741.

Jonathan B. Singer is an associate professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work and the secretary for the American Association of Suicidology.

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