September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day — which provides an important opportunity to emphasize the significance of both suicide education and suicide prevention in Iowa, and beyond.
Suicide is an extremely difficult behavior to predict. However, an awareness of the primary warning signs is an important first step in trying to save a life. Warning signs are variable to some degree, but often include depression, hopelessness, perceived helplessness, social isolation, a previous suicide attempt, a poor self-concept, substance abuse, and having experienced violence or victimization.
Sometimes, there are no obvious warning signs, which leads to so many friends/family expressing disbelief that their loved one has ended their own life. Friends and family often feel a combination of disbelief, guilt, anger and a wide variety of additional emotions when someone they are close to dies by suicide — though everyone’s individual emotional reaction is somewhat different.
If you are concerned that someone may be suicidal, don’t be afraid to reach out to them, and don’t be hesitant to ask them if they have been feeling so badly lately that they have thought of harming themselves. People who are suicidal very often want permission to talk about their pain — and many times they will appreciate you asking this question. In many ways you are throwing the person a potential lifeline.
If the person’s answer to that question causes you concern, it is important to (1) encourage them to seek treatment; (2) monitor and support them; and (3) consult with a mental health professional.
It is important to be aware of resources. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That phone number is 800-273-8255. A second excellent resource is the American Association of Suicidology (AAS www.suicidology.org.). The national lifeline phone number can be called both by people who are feeling suicidal, as well as people concerned about another person being potentially suicidal. In the Johnson County area you can also call 1-855-325-4296. This crisis line is operated by CommUnity (formerly The Crisis Center).
In 2017, based on data from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, AAS, and the CDC, 479 people ended their lives in Iowa. That is one every 18 hours. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Iowa among 15-34 year-olds, and the fourth leading cause of death among 35-54 year-olds.
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Nationally, between the years 2000 and 2016 the suicide rate increased by 30 percent among all people, and increased 50 percent among girls and women. Suicide rates are at their highest since World War II, and in 2017 there were over twice as many suicides (47,173) as homicides (19,510). Over 50 percent of suicides take place utilizing a firearm. Obviously, these data are of great concern.
Many years ago I lost a close friend to suicide. This motivated me to want to become a psychologist, and to want to study and work in the area of suicidology. With prevention efforts, treatment, and education I am hopeful that we can begin to reduce the rate of suicide in Iowa, and throughout the nation and world.
John S. Westefeld is a suicidologist and a psychologist in private practice in Iowa City.