The number of lives lost to suicide is shocking and the impact on survivors is devastating. Indeed, friends and family of those who take their lives often struggle for years trying to make sense of the loss — sometimes blaming themselves for not saving their loved one.
And the children of those who die by suicide are at increased risk for mental health challenges themselves, given the trauma and confusion they experience when a parent seemingly “chooses” to abandon them.
We tend to accept some suicide as unavoidable and inevitable. Many people believe that mental illness, depression and addiction are conditions that cannot be prevented, addressed or effectively treated. But mental health conditions and substance use disorders can be treated even if we can’t always prevent them. People can — and do — heal, recover and live productive lives despite the challenges. It’s time to normalize the need to care for our mental health. Suicide can be prevented.
An uphill battle against disturbing trends
In order to reverse current trends, however, we have much work to do. According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, more than 47,000 people aged 10 and older died by suicide in 2016 — reflecting an increased suicide rate of 30 percent since 2000.
Perhaps the most concerning finding is that suicide is now the second leading cause of death for individuals 10 to 34 years old and the fourth leading cause for those 35 to 44. For those 10 to 24, only accidents caused more deaths, making suicide a greater cause of death for youth than cancer.
Suicide is not only a concern in the United States. The World Health Organization reports that approximately 800,000 people die by suicide every year, which is one person every 40 seconds. Globally, suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals 15 to 29 years old.
Fortunately, the culture of mental health is changing. We are starting to talk about mental health, addiction and suicide more openly and honestly. Even our language is changing to reflect new attitudes. We are moving away from saying that someone “committed” suicide — as if it was a rational act or a crime. Obituaries often note that an individual “died by suicide” or “lost their battle with depression”. These are positive changes but we can do more to ensure that those in need seek and receive the help they deserve.
Solving the mental health crisis begins with us
In order to do more, we have to recognize a few realities.
There simply aren’t enough trained professionals to address the mental health crisis we are facing. There are only approximately 500,000 mental health professionals in the U.S. Given that 1-in-5 adults (44.7 million people) have a diagnosable mental health condition, it is unlikely that we will have enough professionals any time soon to meet our needs. But this shouldn’t stop us from leveraging those we have more effectively. We are working on that.
Further, our current health care system dramatically limits access to care for those most in need of treatment — but this shouldn’t stop us from developing support systems and technology-based solutions to reach those who are suffering.
In our case, our work together is focusing on culture change — so that those in need are able to seek and receive the care they deserve. We know the need for this care first-hand. Talinda’s late husband, the musician and Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington, lost sight of the love and support that was available to him — but his death will not be in vain. His passing — and the recent losses of other well-known individuals to suicide — is a catalyst that is encouraging a national conversation about emotional well-being and mental health.
Rather than only looking outside ourselves for solutions to the mental health needs in our communities, it’s time to recognize that taking care of our own mental health is the most important thing we can each do for ourselves and those we love. Attending to our own emotional well-being ensures that we are in a much better place to help those we love when they struggle.
It isn’t easy to acknowledge our vulnerabilities and traumas or accept our limitations. It isn’t easy to ask for or accept help. But we all have mental health — we have all suffered emotionally and some of us suffer terribly. We all have moments when we aren’t emotionally healthy. These moments can be filled with shame and we can suffer alone or we can share our stories with each other — of struggle, hope and recovery. And we can teach our children how to talk about their emotional pain as well as their emotional health.
If we change how we deal with our own mental health, maybe those who are most vulnerable, most afraid and most despairing, will know that they can turn to us during the darkest times. They will recognize that we can — and will — be here for each other, no matter what. Perhaps then suicide will cease to be a viable option.
Throughout Chester’s life, he saved lives with his music and philanthropy. In response to his death, we can save lives by spotlighting the urgent need — and the opportunity — for change. It begins with each of us.
Barbara Van Dahlen is the founder and president of Give an Hour and The Campaign to Change Direction. Talinda Bennington co-founder of 320 Changes Direction and executive adviser to The Campaign to Change Direction.
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