When it comes to suicide prevention, there are many important things for which we need to advocate. As the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Vice President of Research, funding for suicide prevention research is at the top of my list! Suicide has long been one of the leading causes of death in this country, right alongside other health conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Suicide can be prevented – that’s one thing we have learned and continue to learn! – and, thanks to scientific research, we have made so much progress in discovering ways we may save lives. Yet funding for suicide prevention research is woefully inadequate when compared to other leading causes of death. I’m here to tell you that everyone can get involved in fighting for legislation that can help change this.
It’s easy to forget – or simply not realize – how far we’ve come in our understanding of suicide. In 1985, when I entered the field of suicide prevention as a young psychologist, many people mistakenly believed that you could unintentionally influence a person to kill themselves simply by saying the word suicide! (Meaning that people were too worried to ask someone directly if they were having suicidal thoughts – which we now know is the best thing you can do.) So, the subject was often left unspoken. People also mistakenly believed that kids didn’t think about suicide much or make suicide attempts – although the research I was involved in showed that almost 9% of teens reported they had made an attempt to kill themselves, and many more adolescents were dying by suicide. We learned that because this was one of the first studies to ask people – in this case, teens – if they had thought about suicide or ever made an attempt.
At that point, it had been shown that mental health conditions were almost always present when someone died by suicide – which is true. However, the belief was that if you treated the mental health condition, the suicide risk would simply go away. Turns out, this is not always the case. While treating the mental health condition can reduce risk for some, it’s not always enough. We now know suicide is much more complex. Suicide happens within and across many mental health conditions, and a mental health condition is one of many possible risk factors for suicide – for example, others might include physical health conditions, chronic pain, a family history of suicide, head trauma and childhood abuse. (You can read about risk factors and protective factors here.) In fact, most people back then believed that suicide could never be prevented – consequently, there wasn’t much effort put into suicide prevention.
Slowly, over time, and thanks to the growing field of suicide prevention research, things have changed. Suicide prevention research has taught us so much, and has helped us discover ways that we can lower the rates of suicide and save lives.
We have learned that suicide is complex and that multiple biological, psychological, social and environmental factors contribute to suicide risk. When a person with multiple risk factors for suicide is faced with precipitating stressors and has access to lethal means, that increases their risk of dying by suicide.
We have learned that there is no single cause of suicide. In other words, no individual takes their life for a single reason; it’s generally a combination of risk factors converging at the same time.
We have also learned that limiting access to lethal means can prevent suicide when people are at heightened risk, because it buys them time to get past that painful moment of possible action and allows time for someone to intervene. The science has shown that if we can get a suicidal person past that moment, statistically they don’t just “find another way” – they go on to live.
In just the past twenty to thirty years, several treatments have also been developed to help people manage and reduce suicidal ideation and behavior, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy- Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP) and Attachment Based Family Therapy (ABFT). (You can read more about suicide prevention interventions and treatments here.)
We have learned that the way people are thinking when having a suicidal crisis is affected; their decision making may be altered, relating to brain function. We also now know that genes contribute to suicide risk: not just related to family history, but also stress genes and other genes that contribute to how we behave and what we do. Research has shown that treatment can change brain function to reduce the risk of suicide.
Most people now understand that it is possible to prevent suicide; though, as with a physical condition heart disease, we cannot save every life.
And how did we learn all of this? THROUGH RESEARCH!
Until 2016, less than $50 million a year was spent by the National Institute of Health on research for suicide prevention, which had long been the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. No wonder the incredible, lifesaving progress we have made has been made slowly. Recently, it has been estimated that funding for suicide prevention research will be $156 million in 2022. This is as a result of advocacy efforts – everyday people speaking up and letting our elected officials know that this issue is important to them. The current funding is better than it had been, but nowhere near enough for what is still a major leading cause of death.
We know that when we invest in research, we can save more lives. Investing in suicide prevention research means investing in all kinds of research: Biological, psychological, social, environmental, integrated models for suicide, assessment, treatment and dissemination and implementation of treatments. It takes funds to do this, and it is through mental health and suicide prevention advocacy that we can increase the funds so desperately needed to learn more about how we can save lives, and do so much more quickly.
My hope is that you will join me, along with many other volunteer mental health and suicide prevention advocates in fighting for substantial funds to support suicide research. It’s so easy to get involvedand learn more about the legislation that will result in greater investment in scientific research, and ultimately more actionable strategies that will help save lives.
If you care about suicide prevention – if you care about your family, friends, and others in your community – I urge you to join us in raising your voice and becoming an advocate. It can be as simple as sending an email, or meeting with your elected representatives.
Learn about the #MoreForMentalHealth campaign.