Home » Suicide Isn’t Painless — How We Can Reverse an Alarming Public Health Trend

Suicide Isn’t Painless — How We Can Reverse an Alarming Public Health Trend

by Louis J. Wasser

Probably because the very idea of suicide is repellent to us, we tend to think of it as being rare. In fact, suicide is more common than we’d like to believe. According to Random History, for every two homicides in the United States, there are three suicides. More people die of suicide each year than in automobile accidents. Also, according to the Centers for Disease Control, approximately 3.7% of adults in our nation reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year; and approximately 2.2 million of them reported making suicidal plans during the same period of time.

Given our Judeo-Christian values, how can we not argue that suicide is both horrific and tragic? Yet, because it entails $34.6 billion in medical and work loss costs, we’re also best advised to think of it as a public health threat. Its close ties to drug and alcohol abuse provide a natural alert to this threat. Based on data collected from 16 states, 33.3% of those who succeeded in killing themselves tested positive for alcohol, 23% for antidepressants, and 20.8% for opiates, including heroin and prescription pain killers.

Does this mean we should adopt harsher regulations for drugs and alcohol? That probably won’t help. After all, those who choose to die have many options at their disposal. But if we think of the desire to take one’s life as a particular side effect of ingesting too much alcohol or drugs, we’ll remain more sensitized to suicidal tendencies exhibited by those we care for.

The suicide rate is highest in those over 65 — white men over this age commit suicide at a rate 3 times greater than the national average.

Don’t delude yourself either that the danger of suicide with the aid of alcohol or drugs is most prevalent among the young. In his article Retirement Karma: Is it Going to Bite You, Forbes contributing writer Robert Laura reminds us that Baby Boomers were the first generation to experiment with recreational drugs. This same generation is now at an age at which declining health, and the conflict of caring for adult children and elderly parents, make a strong impact. Laura reports too that “it is expected that, by 2020, the number of retirees with alcohol and other drug problems will leap 150% to 4.4 million — up from only 1.7 million in 2001.”

According to the American Association of Suicidology, the rate of suicide is highest in those over 65. In fact, white men over this age commit suicide at a rate three times greater than the national average. The trend is even worse among black and Hispanic men. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 1 million people each year kill themselves.

As we contemplate the stunning world figures for the number of suicides, it seems impossible not to wonder why anyone would want to take his or her own life. Especially in a society like ours in which we’re faced with so many choices for our lives, why would we want to reject them altogether?

According to WebMD, over 90% of people who commit suicide are clinically depressed. While that percentage might seem to reflect a truism, we should allow for a small number of people who, due to terminal illness, are stricken with unbearable physical pain.

But it would be unthinkable to conclude we couldn’t somehow learn to reach at least some of the 90% before they decide to end their lives. Mental health specialists stress there are ways to do this. It’s a matter of caring, listening, and staying attuned to deliberate or inadvertent signals put out by those on the edge of suicide.

At times, these signals are glaring. At other times, they’re more subtle. A person toying with the idea of taking their own life might exhibit persistent sadness or a loss of interest in the things he or she is most passionate about. They might talk about the possibility of taking their life, or about how useless everything seems. Other things to look for are signs of a major life decision. A person bent on suicide might express elation at having just put their affairs in order. It’s one thing to talk matter-of-factly about, say, having made out a will; it’s quite another to express elation or relief at having done so.

I once sat and talked with someone who worked as a volunteer for a suicide hot line service. I asked her: “What’s the one thing you should do to try and help someone who is morbidly focused on taking his own life.” Her answer was both moving and insightful. “Whatever you do, don’t try to fix things; listen… listen deeply to show you care and that you understand.”

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