By Philip Osteen, director of the Social Research Institute, College of Social Work
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among all age groups. Every year, over 44,000 people die by suicide in the United States. Although there is some variation based on date and source of data, Utah has about the seventh highest suicide rate in the country—nearly twice the national average. Suicide is the fifth highest cause of death among all Utahns and the No. 1 cause of death among youth 15-24 years old.
As someone who has been personally and professionally affected by suicide, I understand the overwhelming sense of loss, pain and shock that engulfs families, communities and society as a whole after a suicide. We are left with questions of why someone would take their own life and what, if anything, could have been done to stop them. In reality, no one has complete control over another person’s behavior, at least not indefinitely. Only the individual can decide whether or not they are going to take their own life. However, if we ever encounter someone who is at high risk for suicide, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to intervene and to create a critical moment in time that leads to someone choosing to live.
Being able to link those at high risk for suicide with appropriate and effective mental health services remains the best intervention strategy. However, this strategy is only effective when those at risk are connected to, and use, that care. According to Mental Health America, current data suggests 82 percent of adults with a major mental illness have health insurance, but more than 56 percent of adults in Utah with a major mental illness are not receiving treatment. There are many possible explanations for this, including having limited access to and/or underutilizing available mental health services, but this further substantiates the need for family, friends and members of the community to intervene when they encounter someone at risk for suicide.
So what can we do? As suggested above, anyone may encounter someone at risk for suicide, be it a family member or friend, a coworker or even a stranger. What would you do? In my heart I believe that each and every one of us would do whatever it takes to intervene, to create that moment in time when the path to suicide can be turned around.
Here are three basic things you can do to ACT:
- ASK the question. Talk about it. Be direct. Asking someone about suicide will not increase the likelihood that it will happen; in fact, it will reduce the risk.
- CARE for the person. Help them be safe. Help them figure out what to do next to get help.
- TELL a professional. Help the person get connected to someone who can help.
Is it uncomfortable? Yes. But if you had the opportunity to save a life, you would, wouldn’t you?
Here’s what you can do now so that you are prepared. Be informed. Visit online resources such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to learn the warning signs for suicide. Download the SAFEUT smartphone app. Familiarize yourself with local mental health resources. Add the national suicide crisis line to the contact list on your phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Dial 9-1-1 in an emergency.
Osteen will captain the University of Utah College of Social Work team at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Salt Lake City Walk on Saturday, Sept.15, 2018. All members of the University of Utah community are welcome to join this team in their efforts to save lives, change the conversation about mental health and bring hope to those affected by suicide.