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A wake-up call for new approaches to suicide prevention

This editorial appeared in Monday's, June 11, Washington Post.

Days after the suicide of renowned fashion designer Kate Spade, chef and world-traveling TV storyteller Anthony Bourdain was found dead in a hotel room in France, another apparent suicide. Spade was 55, Bourdain was 61, and the tragedy of their lives cut short by their own hands was difficult for many of their admirers to accept or comprehend. But their deaths should serve to highlight suicide as a serious and growing public-health problem that demands attention and action.

A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last Thursday - two days after Spade's death and a day before the death of Bourdain - found that suicide rates have increased in all but one state over the past two decades, with half of the states showing increases of more than 30 percent. Nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016 - more than twice the number of homicides - making it the 10th-leading cause of death and one of three that is increasing. Among people ages 15 to 34, suicide was the second-leading cause of death in 2016.

Among the factors cited in the report were social isolation, lack of mental-health treatment, gun ownership, and drug and alcohol abuse. Particularly disquieting was the determination that more than half of the people who died by suicide had evidenced no known mental-health conditions but instead were influenced by factors such as relationship breakups, substance abuse, or health or financial setbacks. It's possible that mental conditions could have been present but never diagnosed, but that doesn't alter the CDC's finding that suicide is an issue that affects not only the mentally ill but also others struggling with stressful lifestyle problems.

The report - coinciding with the suicides of two well-known and much-admired people - should serve as a wake-up call for new, more comprehensive approaches to suicide policies and strategies. Instead of relying on individuals to proactively proclaim themselves suicidal (which experts say occurs infrequently), methods need to be developed to identify who is at risk. Efforts are needed to teach people about coping with lifestyle issues such as troubled relationships or unpaid bills.

The report found, not surprisingly, that the most common way people kill themselves is with a gun, which is another argument to bring some rationality to gun laws. Suicide is often an impulsive act, so think of the lives that could be saved if guns were not so easily accessible to people having troubles, like that teenager who just got a bad report card and the worker who just got laid off. Australia made access to firearms more difficult and has seen a decline in firearm suicide rates. So have states that have put in place laws that allow authorities to seize firearms from people who are deemed to be dangerous.

The rise in suicides in the United States crosses lines of age, gender, race and ethnicity. It is time to treat it like the public-health crisis it is.

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