As someone who talks a lot about suicide prevention and my own suicidal ideation, it still feels like there are more questions than answers when it comes to suicide, the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. When Suicide Prevention Awareness Month rolls around each September, I find myself wondering, “Is it even really possible to prevent people from dying by suicide?”
The answer is yes, suicide is absolutely preventable even if it doesn’t always feel like it. I get it: It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of something as complex and pervasive as suicide. But there is a lot we can all do to help prevent suicide, whether you have lived experience with suicidal ideation, know someone who does, or just want to help.
You’re probably familiar with some of the steps you can take, like talking to a friend who may be in crisis, learning how to recognize the warning signs of suicide, and knowing which hotline numbers you can call or share with those in need. That said, there are also ways you can contribute to suicide prevention that you might not have thought of before—and you may be able to make a bigger difference than you think.
I talked to experts Christine Moutier, M.D., chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and April Foreman, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and executive board member at the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), about the actionable things we can do to support this crucial cause. They’re great to try for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, but they’re important year-round, too. Here’s how you can help:
1. Sign up as a suicide prevention field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
As a field advocate, you’ll get gentle email nudges when there are things you can do to help the suicide prevention cause on both a state and federal level. You may be surprised to hear there’s actually a lot of legislation in the works that directly or indirectly impacts suicide prevention, but it’s true. For example, right now, there are three key bills on the table advocating for suicide prevention among veterans and service members that you can urge Congress members to pass, such as the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act.
I’ll be the first to admit that I get overwhelmed by these types of calls to action. Getting in touch with your representatives and parsing out legislation can be confusing. Overall, actually making a difference as a citizen can feel like a pretty tall order. Luckily for people like me, if you sign up as a field advocate for suicide prevention with the AFSP, they’ll send calls to action straight to your inbox, which is so helpful if you don’t have time to stay on top of this stuff constantly. For example, if a call to action asks you to email your state legislators about a specific policy, not only will the AFSP tell you how to find exactly who to contact, but they’ll also provide a suggested email template you can customize, Dr. Moutier tells SELF.
There are calls to action unrelated to legislation as well. Recently, the AFSP encouraged field advocates to submit letters to the editors of their local papers to inform them of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and encourage coverage.
You can also visit the AFSP’s Action Center to see current legislation and policies that need your support at any given moment.
2. Ask your representatives to fund suicide research.
If you’re going to do one thing, Foreman asks that you try to hold your representatives accountable for funding suicide research. Proper funding is crucial for making advances in understanding and preventing suicide. “We haven’t made a lot of scientific progress on suicide research,” Foreman tells SELF. “One of the reasons for that is because we’re not well-funded.”
To give you an idea of just how underfunded suicide research is in relation to the scale of the problem, let’s look at some numbers. In 2017, 47,173 people died by suicide, and last year, research on suicide and suicide prevention received $147 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). By comparison, 41,743 people died from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis in 2017—so almost 5,500 fewer than those who died by suicide—but that cause received $335 million in funding. That's a $188 million difference.
Prejudice and stigma related to mental illness may be to thank for some of this disparity, according to Foreman. “[Many] don't see the pain and suffering of people who are suicidal as equal to that of other conditions that kill you,” she says. “There are scientists who, the minute their labs get funding, are ready to go. But what has to happen is the public has to insist that that’s what they want.”
The NIH requests its budget from the U.S. Congress, then it breaks up the funds between different institutes and centers of biomedical disciplines, including the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Because these budget decisions happen on multiple levels, Foreman suggests writing your elected representatives about the importance of suicide prevention research—both to insist they approve budget requests for the cause and to request that they talk directly with the NIH about providing more money to suicide research when it allocates its funds. You can find out more about contacting your elected representatives here.
If you’re feeling a little jaded about the difference the public can make on something as large as national research funding, remember that it’s happened before. “When I was a child in the 1980s, we thought AIDS was a death sentence,” says Foreman. Now, because of scientific advancements and activism, people are generally more likely to get tested for HIV, know their status, and receive treatment. “That happened in my lifetime—and it didn’t happen because of a fluke,” says Foreman. “It was because people who [were] impacted by HIV demanded that science was funded. It’s time to do that with [suicide].”
As William E. Bunney, M.D. wrote in Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative, “There is every reason to expect that a national consensus to declare war on suicide and to fund research and prevention at a level commensurate with the severity of the problem will be successful, and will lead to highly significant discoveries as have the wars on cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and AIDS.”
3. Donate your data to support suicide research.
“If we want science to go faster, what we need is data,” says Foreman. Many scientists are now looking into how social media can enhance our understanding of mental health. After all, many of us spend a significant amount of time and energy on social media platforms. It makes sense that scientists might find some clues there, like warning signs of suicide or different expressions of suicidal ideation.
You can donate your data through OurDataHelps, a research project dedicated to collecting information that will push suicide prevention efforts forward. OurDataHelps is overseen by a board of advisors made up of advocates, clinicians, and other experts. The project includes representatives from the AAS (including Foreman), The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Transgender Research, The National Association of Crisis Organization Directors, combat veterans from the United States Military, and other groups.
Through donated submissions, OurDataHelps collects messages posted publicly on social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and Reddit, wearable sensor data from programs like FitBit, and workout data from programs like Runkeeper. They also have donors fill out questionnaires so they can delve into demographic details and health history, ultimately putting all of this information in the hands of non-profit researchers looking into the connection between social media and mental health.
If you’re interested in donating your data or just have more questions about the process, you can read more here. You don’t even have to deal with suicidal ideation or other mental health challenges. Your data could still provide important information as a point of comparison.
4. Take a training course on being an effective suicide prevention ally.
All of the science-y and large-scale activism measures above are great. But suicide prevention can happen on a more personal level too, and that’s just as important, says Dr. Moutier. Things like suicide awareness or mental health training courses can help you look out for and be equipped to help your friends and loved ones, as well as people in your community.
Dr. Moutier suggests Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour in-person course designed to teach you how to help someone struggling with their mental health or experiencing a mental health crisis. Though it’s not yet available nationwide, a mental health resource center, school, or other group might host the program near you. This course varies in cost (and is sometimes free) depending on who’s hosting it. Find a Mental Health First Aid course near you here.
Another popular (and more widely available) option both experts I talked to suggest is QPR (which stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer), a gatekeeper training program experts liken to the CPR of suicide prevention. A gatekeeper, according to the Surgeon General’s National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, is someone in a position to recognize a crisis and the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide. You can take the course as an individual for $30 here.
If taking a full-on course isn’t right for you at this point in time, there are still things you can do to educate yourself, such as brushing up on the warning signs of suicide and how to respond to them, along with familiarizing yourself with the resources available in case you or someone else ever needs them.
5. Talk about your experience.
Telling your story can be a powerful tool, whether you’re someone who has survived a suicide loss or attempt or who lives with suicidal ideation. When you share, you might model that there’s no shame in talking about suicide, for example, or give someone hope that managing suicidality or healing from an attempt or loss is possible.
There’s no single way to talk about your experience. You can share your story in a more organized way, such as through AFSP, or you can disclose privately to friends and loved ones when you’re ready. You can even pledge to talk about your experience with suicide and suicidal ideation casually to normalize the conversation.
Personally, I have found great comfort in talking about my experience with suicidality on social media, where I can connect with others who can relate without it feeling like this Big Thing. As a response, I’m routinely inundated with messages from people who feel the same way, and all of us feel less alone for it.
There are some caveats to this, Dr. Moutier points out: “We’re very careful with readiness to share your story publically or even privately.” This guide, created through the collaboration of several organizations and experts in the suicide prevention community, including the AAS and the AFSP, may help you decide if you’re ready to share your story as a suicide loss or suicide attempt survivor.
Even if you are ready to share, the way you talk about it matters. This resource from AFSP explains how important language can be when talking about suicide and gives some helpful dos and don’ts. Otherwise, we run the risk of glorifying the act, leading to contagion, or further stigmatizing suicide and suicidal ideation.
“We are such social creatures,” says Dr. Moutier. “When we tell our stories in the right way, it really can be contagious in a positive way.”
All told, sharing—if it’s right for you—can contribute significantly to preventing suicide. “You’re creating a culture whenever you share,” says Dr. Moutier. “And that is a safe, respectful culture around mental health so that more people are able to speak about it and get the help that they need.”
If you’re thinking about suicide or just need someone to talk to right now, you can get support by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or by texting HOME to 741-741, the Crisis Text Line. And here is a list of international suicide helplines if you’re outside the US.
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