September Is Suicide Awareness Month—Where Are We Now?

Each year, September is designated as Suicide Awareness Month. Capping a month-long observation, governmental, non-governmental, private, public, and academic organizations and resources join to thwart this pernicious enemy. So where are we now regarding this tragic ending to so many—too many—veterans and service members? Have we “moved the needle” towards lessening the number of 20 a day?

Suicide – Disproportionately High Among Veterans
To begin with, according to the most accurate and latest numbers we have, in 2014, at least 7,400 veterans committed suicide. We know this number is low; single vehicle crashes and seemingly accidental overdoses account for another unmeasured statistic.

Alarmingly, veterans comprise less than 9% of the U.S. population; however, they account for about 18% of suicides. From 2001 to 2014, as the civilian suicide rate increased more than 23%, itself triggering a national call to action—but the rate of suicide among veterans jumped a staggering 32%.

What do I do if I suspect someone may be having thoughts of suicide?
Knowing the action steps can save a life. If you encounter a loved-one, veteran, or neighbor displaying some of the above concerns? There are five simple action steps you can take.

  • Ask – Research shows people who are having thoughts of suicide feel relief when someone asks after them in a caring way. Findings suggest acknowledging and talking about suicide may reduce rather than increase suicidal ideation.
  • Keep Them Safe – A number of studies have indicated that when lethal means are made less available or less deadly, suicide rates by that method decline, and frequently suicide rates overall decline.
  • Be There – Individuals are more likely to feel less depressed, less suicidal, less overwhelmed, and more hopeful by after speaking to someone who listens without judgment.
  • Help Them Stay Connected – Studies indicate that helping someone at-risk create a network of resources and individuals for support and safety can help them take positive action and reduce feelings of hopelessness.
  • Follow Up – Studies have also shown that brief, low-cost intervention and supportive, ongoing contact may be an important part of suicide prevention, especially for individuals after they have been discharged from hospitals or care services. #BeThere
  • A Treatable Condition It is important to realize that suicide is not a mental illness in and of itself, but a serious potential consequence of treatable mental health conditions. Hence, efforts to reduce suicide to zero—a noteworthy goal of the VA, psychiatric disorders which include major depression, bipolar disorder, and substance use disorders, and yes, PTSD, must be identified and treated.

Connect with VA Services
Sadly, about 70% of the men and women who took their own lives were not regular users of VA services where newly required depression screening—the single GREATEST risk factor for a completed suicide—could undoubtedly save lives. This is because depression (and I am really talking about profound and clinically significant major depression) is one of the most successfully treated conditions we humans experience. Much of the warning signs for suicide have to do with signs and symptoms for depression.

Screening for Depression is Quick and Can Be Lifesaving
Considering that 25 million Americans suffer from depression each year, more than 50% of all people who die by suicide are battling significant clinical depression. Major depression impacts about 5-8% of Americans ages 18 and over each year.

Major Point #1: Screening for and treating depression = substantially decreasing suicide.

Community Engagement – The Role of the Gatekeeper
Because most deaths occur in the veteran population not affiliated with the VA, one of latest and most significant efforts undertaken by the VA today is to engage communities through outreach strategies as facilitated by the Suicide Prevention Tool Kit. These toolkits enable community members, providers, first responders, and even employers to take an active role in awareness and outreach efforts and campaigns. Community-based involvement entails the creation of Suicide Prevention Councils, promotion of events and resources, awareness messaging, and perhaps most life-saving, the expansion of safe storage of firearms, pills, and other means of self-harm. (The most frequent suicide method in 2014 for males involved the use of firearms (55.4%), while poisoning was the most frequent method for females (34.1%)).

Major Point # 2: Means Restriction Saves Lives!

What is also concerning is a newly emerging trend in suicide statistics. Suicide rates have risen more than 85% for female veterans when compared to about 40 percent for civilian women in the same time period. Appreciating the importance gatekeeps have in triaging concerns pertaining to self-harm, learning how to conduct suicide risk assessments and how to create suicide prevention safety plans is foundational. Check out the Veterans Suicide Prevention Toolkit HERE.

Major Point # 3: The toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is available to everyone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Much has been done in the years following an ominously increasing suicide problem among our veteran population—a problem approaching epidemic proportions. Still, one of the most essential and important prevention efforts remains connection—connections to loved one, friends, battle buddies, and co-workers. The Semper Fi Fund remains committed to being there when you or your loved one, battle buddy or co-worker needs us.