Editorial: Raising suicide awareness

·3 min read

Suicide was a public health crisis before the COVID-19 pandemic. Months of isolation, fear, uncertainty and hopelessness accelerated during those difficult years, fueling substance abuse and depression at a time when seeking care and treatment wasn’t easy.

Reducing the annual number of suicide deaths — saving lives — isn’t an easy hill to climb but it begins with awareness of the problem and a commitment to help. Together, we can reach more people and get them the help they need to make it through another day.

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, claiming nearly 46,000 American lives in 2020. That’s the most recent year for which statistics are available, and the nation should steel itself for the release of numbers for 2021, the second year of the pandemic.

The suicide rate increased 30% from 2000 to 2018 according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and declined slightly in 2019 and again in 2020. If there’s a bright spot to be found amid such awful numbers, it is that. There is also promise in the launch of 988, the nationwide suicide hotline for those in crisis.

Nearly half of those deaths came via firearms. That further affirms the correlation between gun ownership and higher rates of suicide, something an extensive 2020 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine asserted. Researchers tracked 26 million men and women between 2004 and 2016 and found the suicide risk for male gun owners was eight times higher than non gun owners. For women, the risk was 35 times higher.

Suicide rates also differ significantly based on demographic information (“non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native and non-Hispanic whites” have the highest rates, per the CDC); age (the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10-14 and 25-34 is suicide); geography (rural residents have higher rates than city dwellers); sexual orientation (LGBTQ Americans, especially youth, are more likely to consider suicide than heterosexuals); and occupation (mining and construction workers have a higher risk).

That last point bears special mention because of one occupation group in particular: American military veterans, who represent about 14% of all suicides in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. While the number has remained nearly constant from 2001, when the nation lost 5,989 heroes to suicide, to 2019, when 6,261 veterans died, that far outpaces the general population’s suicide rate.

That’s especially concerning in Virginia, home to a sizable veteran population. The commonwealth’s veteran suicide rate is lower than the national rate, which suggests the efforts made to provide help to former service members may be making a difference.

This is National Suicide Prevention Week, which makes it a time for action and a time for remembrance. Nobody ever truly moves on from losing a loved one or a good friend, but there are healthy ways to cope, to find comfort and to heal.

One of those is to funnel that anger, frustration and sorrow into productive efforts to help others, and Saturday marks the first of three chances for Hampton Roads residents to be part of the solution.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Virginia Chapter will hold its annual “Out of the Darkness” walk at Virginia Beach’s Mount Trashmore, beginning at noon. Two other area walks will follow: at Newport News Park on Oct. 15 at 10 a.m. and at Bennett’s Creek Park in Suffolk on Oct. 22 at 11 a.m.

Participants will be there to bring attention to the crisis, to support survivors and to raise money for awareness efforts. To learn more, visit the AFSP chapter website at afsp.org/chapter/virginia.

While we cannot bring back those we lost, we can honor their struggles and celebrate their memories by being a guiding light to help others find their way out of the darkness.