September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. In early 2020, news spread of increased rates of suicides among frontline workers, teens, the elderly, and those grappling with health concerns and residual impacts from a national shutdown. In March 2020 alone, the Disaster Distress Helpline at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) saw an 891% increase in call volume compared with March 2019. Equally disturbing, the helpline saw 338% more calls in March 2020 than in the month prior. Many health experts are warning about a looming surge in premature deaths.
“Before the pandemic, Mississippians were already living in a public health crisis where on average we were losing one young person per week to suicide. Nationally, there has been a steady increase from 1999-2018,” says John D. Damon, Ph.D., CEO for Canopy Children’s Solutions. “While it’s too early for data to show how COVID-19 is affecting suicide rates in the U.S., studies have pointed to surges that occurred after the SARS epidemic in the early 2000s. Mental health concerns are on the rise because of an increase in stressors that are taking up prolonged space in our lives so it’s important that we take notice when someone is struggling mentally, physically or emotionally.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has identified a series of contributing factors that increase the risks of suicide including health, environment and trauma.
Health factors that contribute to suicide include existing and unaddressed mental health challenges. Mental health challenges can cause negative/irrational thinking, emotional pain, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and physiological changes in the brain that alter hormones and your body’s reaction to stress. Health factors can include those receiving a terminal diagnosis who fear creating a burden for their families and those whose health conditions cause chronic pain.
Environmental factors were identified as difficult life events and risky behaviors often used as coping skills. Many families are experiencing prolonged stress, financial strain and problems in relationships such as divorce, isolation, bullying/cyber bullying. Another contributing factor, particularly of concern for younger people is ease of access to firearms or controlled medications during high-stress moments. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in individuals ages 24 and under. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls “executive functions,” like judgement, impulse control, emotional regulation and aggression, isn’t fully developed until age 25.
“Suicidal ideation is an irrational judgement that whatever is happening in life is unfixable,” says Damon. “If a person, and particularly a young person, is going through a hard time they have a greater likelihood of acting impulsively rather than stopping and examining the bigger picture. Having easy access to lethal means can make these snap judgments come to a devastating end.”
Trauma or historical factors are the third category of risk indicators. Individuals who have experienced abuse, have lived through a traumatic experience such as a natural disaster, have a history of suicidal attempts, or have family members who have died by suicide increases an individual’s risk of suicide. Because children learn coping skills and ways of addressing stress from adult role models, the way parents handle stress is often passed down to children. It is extremely important to learn healthy coping skills young and to practice them together as a family.
Know the signs. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-24.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that youth are more likely to show warning signs than older adults who are considering suicide. However, knowing those signs can be pivotal in connecting someone with the help they need. Warning signs of suicide include:
- withdrawal from friends and family
- trouble in romantic/personal relationships
- slump in academic/professional performance
- giving away possessions
- writing or drawing pictures about death
- changes in eating habits/weight gain or loss
- dramatic personality changes/signs of despair
- deterioration of personal hygiene
- problems sleeping
- participation in risky behavior (drugs, alcohol, sex, self-harm)
- talk of suicide, even in a joking way
- have a plan of how they would kill him/herself
- have a history of suicidal attempts
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is always available. If you feel the person is in immediate danger, do not leave them alone and call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room. You can also contact the 24-hour Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free confidential support and crisis resources 1-800-273-8255.
Be there for those around you. When someone you know is struggling with a challenge in their lives, take the time to reach out. Find something you can do to be there for them, even if it is simply making dinner, babysitting or offering to drive them to speak with a licensed counselor. Educate yourself on the signs of suicide and if you suspect someone you know is contemplating ending their life, don’t be afraid speak to them openly or act to get them help. That is the recipe for caring for one another and ending the suicide epidemic.