Ending Suicide Starts Now

I have a very vivid memory of an introductory psychology class that has stuck around with me. We were discussing the biological basis for human behavior, specifically our innate motivation for self-preservation.

The theory makes sense, we demonstrate this critical survival phenomenon in our early moments of life (something is hot, we quickly pull away). Then, our professor asked us, With this idea in mind, do you believe a human being would knowingly drink poison?

No, of course not. It goes against our biological makeup. If anything, we’re pain avoidant and overly cautious as human beings. – The young class of bright eyed students responded.

Well, how many of you have drank alcohol? – the professor asked. The students shyly looked around to assess if we were going to treat this as a rhetorical question.

The professor continued, There are many things human beings do that endanger their self-preservation. This is exceptionally rare among other species. But humans, the most intelligent and evolved species, engage in a variety of behaviors that are harmful to themselves. Some, on a regular basis and some with fatal consequences.

The class went on an expected psychologically-minded journey chasing down the answer to the most complex single-worded question, “why?”

"Do you believe a human being would knowingly drink poison?"

Human beings do a variety of things that are harmful to themselves. So much so that we need to clarify suicidal behaviors with an “intent to die” versus other self-directed and injurious behaviors that may result in injury or death.

Suicide, “death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior” (CDC), was responsible for 44,193 deaths in the U.S. according to our more recent year of available data (CDC 2015). That comes out to approximately,

One suicide every 12 minutes in the United States.

These numbers are a 28% suicide rate increase from 2000, and there are even more people who have attempted suicide. In 2014:

For every 1 suicide there were 27 adults who reported making a suicide attempt.

For every 1 suicide there were over 227 adults who reported seriously considering suicide.

For every 1 suicide there were 9 adults who were hospitalized for self-harm injuries.

None of this includes people who were not forthcoming about suicidal experiences or those who never received treatment for suicide attempts in the United States.

The terribly sad news we received this week about Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain’s apparent suicides remind us that suicidal thoughts, attempts, and deaths are very present among us. They cut across our social groups and lifespan.

Numbers help us understand the occurrence, frequency, and patterns. Remembering that each one of those numbers is a human being and each one of those human beings was associated to at the very least a small group of people, helps us understand the gravity of this human issue.

Professionally and personally, I don’t recommend “profiling” suicide risk. Learning that certain groups of people are at high risk for suicide doesn’t help us see everyone’s struggle. In fact, if not applied appropriately, statistics on suicide rates and risks inhibit our ability to properly refer, diagnose, and treat people who don’t fit the mold.

Learning about groups of people who have higher rates of suicide give us some insight that something exceptionally concerning is going on with specialized groups of people. Something is happening that requires additional research, attention, and care. So, as I share some statistics from the CDC, use the information to increase your awareness and concern, not to write-off others from having suicidal experiences.

While suicide is present across various groups of people, we do see the highest rates of suicide among the following populations:

  • Non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native
  • Non-Hispanic White

I believe the most recently publicized apparent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain are among the latter group (please feel free to correct me).

Suicide is also disproportionately found among:

  • Middle-aged adults (aged 35-64 years old)
    • 35% increase from 2000 to 2015
    • 29% increase seen among males
    • 53% increase among females
  • Veterans and other Military Personnel
    • Suicide rates doubled from 2003 to 2008
    • S uicide rates surpass the rate of suicide among civilians.
  • Workers in certain occupational groups (CDC, 2016).
    • Farming, fishing, and forestry
    • Construction and extraction, installation, maintenance, and repair.
    • P rotective service 
  • Sexual Minority Youth
    • 29% of surveyed LGB youth had attempted suicide at least once within the year prior to the survey (CDC, 2016).

Of the people you know, who identifies with one or more of these groups? Knowing these rates not only increases your awareness of what that person may be struggling with personally but even more likely, what they may be struggling with socially. These rates don’t confirm that the person you know is having suicidal experiences, but it does indicate that the person you know is likely recovering from the loss of someone close to them.

"Of the people you know, 

who identifies with one or more of these groups?"

When we’re examining suicide across our human life span we see the following. Among:

  • 10-14-year-olds, suicide is the Third leading cause of death
  • 15-34-year-olds, suicide is the Second leading cause of death
  • 35-44-year-olds, suicide is the Fourth leading cause of death
  • 45-54-year-olds, suicide is the Fifth leading cause of death
  • 55-64-year-olds, suicide is the Eighth leading cause of death

With so many lives lost on a daily basis we are brought back to the agonizing question, why? Unfortunately, there is no clear single answer. Like other human behaviors, suicide occurs in response to a variety of influences (biological, psychological, interpersonal, environmental, and societal). Each case is different and typically involves an interaction of influences over time. So, though we can’t conceptualize each individual case now, we can talk about solutions.

Suicide is preventable and here is how we do it.

Decreasing these horrific rates of suicide and saving human lives is very much achievable. But just as the issue itself is multifaceted, the solution too requires multi-level interventions. Effectively preventing suicidal behaviors and deaths in our country requires effort and will across all societal-levels, private and public sectors, communities, families, relationships and individuals.

Are you loosing motivation already? Simply think about your individual life. Your family, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors (whether or not you’ve ever made eye contact with them), the strangers you pass by every single day. Now think about the work you do, the system you work for, the social and political organizations you support. Your influence gets bigger and stronger the more you think about it.

Here is a list of (non-mutually exclusive) strategies by the CDC to prevent suicide starting with the greatest potential for broad impact followed by more specialized strategies:


Some of the approaches based purely on research outcomes are pretty surprising. The CDC’s Preventing Suicide: A Technical Package of Policy, Programs, and Practices provides the rationale, approaches, potential outcomes, and evidence for each. Make sure to download the free PDF for more details.  

Now, all of those approaches are long-term plans and solutions that we all need to continuously work toward. Let’s talk about immediate care. Helping others who are at risk for suicide requires knowing and being mindful of general risk factors and warning signs.

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline shares the following list of Risk Factors. Again, though statistically speaking these characteristics are associated with people who are more likely to consider, attempt, or die by suicide, they are not exclusive indicators, causes, or predictors of suicide attempt. Simply considerations to keep in mind. As you read through the risk factors you may notice that some or many of the characteristics were evident among people you know of who have attempted or committed suicide.   


Even more critical are the actual warning signs that a person may attempt to commit suicide. The following Warning Signs provided by the Suicide Prevention Lifeline are helpful in determining if someone you know is at risk for suicide. All of these behaviors are concerning, especially if it’s something new, the person is doing it more frequently, &/or the behaviors are related to a painful event, loss, or change.


Now just increasing your awareness about these risks and signs will not help prevent a horrific loss of life. It is incredibly important to take action, as uncomfortable or anxiety provoking as that may be for you. A moment of your discomfort or unease is worth preventing an unalterable loss of life or injury.

"Just increasing your awareness about these risks and signs will not help prevent a horrific loss of life. It is incredibly important to take action."

If you’re experiencing any of these behaviors or you’ve noticed someone act or talk in this way seek help. Calling the Lifeline at 800-273-8255 is a safe and easy way to get some support for yourself or to get some feedback about someone else who is struggling. The Lifeline is also chat accessible online or via TTY by dialing 800-799-4889 for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. A specialized Veterans Crisis Line is also available by texting 838255 or chatting online.

We can prevent suicide. We just have to work together to create an environment for self-preservation. When I stop and think about it, it’s crazy how frequently we behave in ways that are not in our best interest, health, protection, and wellbeing. Both for ourselves as individuals and for ourselves as species.