The numbers tell a staggering story: Since 1999, suicide rates have climbed 33%. Roughly 130 Americans now die by suicide daily, making it the country’s 10th leading cause of death. Suicides have risen especially sharply among teens and young adults and are now their second leading cause of death.
In 2017, more than 47,000 Americans died by suicide, but federal statistics indicate that the number who have attempted suicide was nearly 30 times that number — meaning 1.4 million survived such incidents.
An estimated 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental condition, a fact that suggests treatment could have saved lives — thousands of lives.
The field of suicide research and prevention is only four to five decades old. For most of that time, those who survived suicides were considered too ill or too disturbed to contribute to understanding the issue.
“Survivors were seen as people to be studied, rather than partnered with,” said Ursula Whiteside, a researcher with the University of Washington. “It was an ‘us and them’ approach. The ‘us’ were people helping and the ‘them’ were people who needed help.”
Implied in that approach was the concern anything could send such people “over the edge.” Until recently, for example, clinical drug trials for mental illnesses routinely removed all patients with any suicidal thoughts. As a result, researchers now understand, little is known today about what medicines might reduce suicidal thoughts or impulses.
Until recently, the suicide prevention movement was largely driven by family and friends of those who died. In recent years — as suicide rates have climbed to historic levels — survivors of suicide attempts have been “coming out,” willing to help combat the problem even if it means speaking out about their own, often-hidden pasts.
Their emergence in unprecedented numbers in the past five years has transformed the suicide prevention world. Researchers trying to understand suicide, who previously focused on post-mortem data and environmental factors, are starting to embrace the relatively new idea of reaching out to people who have experienced it directly.
Advocates are harnessing those emerging voices to raise awareness of suicide as a public health issue and win sorely needed funding and attention.
Government funding for research and prevention has lagged far behind all other leading causes of deaths. Funding for suicide research is regularly dwarfed by ailments with only a fraction of the death toll regularly.
“We are where cancer was in the 1960s, or AIDS was in the 1970s, or Alzheimer’s 10 years ago. We haven’t pierced the national consciousness,” said John Madigan, head of public policy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “We haven’t put a face on the problem.”
Suicide has become a national crisis. Additional funding is needed to better understand its root causes and what can be done to address the problem.