According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans in general, with over 36,000 people taking their lives each year. Additionally, between 400,000 and 500,000 are treated for self-inflicted injuries. It's estimated that there could be as many as 900,000 attempts, though.
When I started looking at the breakdown of 2010 data from the AAS, here is what I noticed:
- Every 13.7 seconds, someone loses hope and leaves behind family and friends.
- Men are 75% more likely to commit suicide. Over 30,000 men took their lives in 2010.
- Of those 30,000, over 27,000 were Caucasian men.
- Women are three times more likely to attempt suicide.
- Based on estimates, someone attempts to end his or her life approximately every 30 seconds.
- While it is the 10th leading cause of death overall, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in Americans 15-24, following accidents and (only narrowly) homicides.
- 4,600 young people between 15 and 24 took their lives in 2010. There were 267 more between 10 and 14. That means that one young person took his or her own life every hour and forty-eight minutes.
- My home state of Tennessee is tied for 18th in the national rankings for suicide, with 943 deaths in 2010. Wyoming topped the list with New York City and D.C. ranking at the bottom.
As I sorted through the data, I couldn't help but wonder why people aren't talking about this more. If CNN or Fox News reported a new virus that killed 30,000 people last year including almost 5,000 children, teens and college students, wouldn't it get people's attention? Wouldn't they post articles on Facebook? Wouldn't it be a topic of conversation at dinner? If parents were told there was an illness claiming children's lives at a rate of one each two hours, wouldn't mothers and fathers be desperate to find a cure, to protect their sons and daughters?
Why aren't people talking about suicide? Why is it such a taboo to discuss in "polite" society? Yes, it's a terrible, depressing, traumatic event in the lives of any family or community. It's not something we want to discuss. But people must start talking beforehand in order to prevent the conversations that take place after someone has ended his or her life:
"If I'd only known he was that hopeless..."
"I wish she'd come and talked to me..."
"I didn't have a clue he was so depressed..."
"But I just saw her yesterday and she seemed fine."
"Didn't he know how much we love him?"
So why aren't we talking?
Why aren't we talking about prevention?
Why aren't more survivors talking, both those who fortunately lived and those who were left behind?
Why aren't we taking it upon ourselves to become more educated, more knowledgeable in spotting the warning signs, in reaching out to those who are hurting?
We teach our children about "stranger danger" and "stop, drop and roll" and how to dial 911. But what do we teach them to do if a friend comes to them and confides, "I want to kill myself."
How many teenagers can quote a crisis hotline number? For that matter, how many adults?
Why aren't seminars being provided in communities for parents to learn about helping their depressed or suicidal teens? Is it because there isn't a perceived "need" for this type of training? Let's face it, most parents don't want to admit their kids have problems, especially ones big enough that outside help is needed.
Why aren't teachers attending in-services that train them in spotting warning signs, in steps to take when a student is in crisis? Aren't the safety and well-being of our young people just as important as Common Core and test data?
Suicide has been in the spotlight more in the past few years, but the focus has been primarily on students who were bullied. And while it is essential that we address bullying in our schools and through social media, we can't ignore the other factors such as depression and abuse that contribute to suicide among young people. The youth in our country should feel comfortable talking about how they feel. If we remove the stigma around talking about mental health, we create opportunities to reach these kids before they are completely hopeless and see death as their only option.
And that doesn't just apply to young people.
We're living in an age where anything you'd ever want to know is a Google search away. There are countless resources about depression, anxiety, bipolar, personality disorders, and any other condition under the mental health label. But so many know so little about these illnesses that affect 1 in 4 adults in any given year. According to NAMI, approximately 61 million people struggle with some form of mental illness, with an estimated 13 million of those living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or major depression.
These are very real and, in many cases, very treatable illnesses. But so many people suffer because they're too ashamed to see a counselor or fill a prescription at the local pharmacy for an anti-depressant or other psychiatric medication.
It's estimated that over 90% of the people who commit suicide have some form of mental illness. They aren't crazy. They have an illness. Just like people with diabetes. Just like people with Parkinson's. Just like people with cancer. But no one is wearing ribbons for them or organizing marathons or having bake sales to raise money for research and awareness.
This is Suicide Prevention Week. To prevent something you have to acknowledge it, to prepare for it, to talk about it.
Talking doesn't cure cancer or AIDS or any other disease. And it doesn't cure depression or bipolar disorder or anxiety. But talking about mental health raises awareness and educates and draws attention to people are in desperate need of support and care. And when those people feel like they have an illness they may discuss and not some dirty secret they have to hide, I believe we will see a decrease in the number of suicides in our country.
We are hard-wired to live. Self-preservation has been part of our human makeup since the dawn of time. How lonely, how hopeless, must someone be to reach the point that he doesn't want to live, to essentially "override" his natural instinct to survive.
No one should feel that alone.
Let's start talking. Today. Let's start a dialogue in our country and make people feel like it's okay to talk about what they are experiencing. Let's talk in person and by text and through social media.
We can be the vaccine in this epidemic. Human kindness and compassion can provide a light in the darkness of another person's life.
Let's talk now and not later. Not at the hospital. Not at the wake. Not at holiday gatherings where a chair sits empty.
Let's talk now.