September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in the United States, and, this year, the week spanning September 4-10 marks the National Suicide Prevention Week.1 In addition, September 10, 2022, is designated as the World Suicide Prevention Day.2 Why so much emphasis on suicide prevention to the point of having a month, a week and a day dedicated to it?
The startling statistics on suicide hint at the reason why. In 2020 alone, one person died from suicide every 11 minutes in the United States.3 Let that sink in. Furthermore, 12.2 million adults seriously thought about suicide that same year and 3.2 million adults made a plan for committing suicide. Of those, 1.2 million attempted suicide and 45,979 died as a result.3
Further examination of the data shows that certain groups are disproportionately affected, resulting in health inequity. In the 2020 data, for example, non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Natives and non-Hispanic Whites had the highest suicide rates.3 Males also had higher suicide rates than females given that males account for 80% of suicides despite making up 49% of the population.3 This gender disparity, however, could be because males are more likely to carry out suicides that result in death.
Additionally, veterans, middle-aged adults, those who live in rural areas, tribal populations and those belonging to sexual and gender minority groups may disproportionately face higher risk factors for suicide such as substance misuse; relationship problems; job or financial problems; physical or mental health problems; and/or easy access to lethal means such as guns.4 (Of note, firearms are the most common method used in suicide.3) Furthermore, those who have experienced physical, emotional or sexual violence, including adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), have a higher suicide risk according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4 Given that suicide not only robs the person of life, but also has a profound negative impact on the person’s loved ones for generations to come, it is critically important to prevent suicides and promote mental wellbeing.
Thanks to the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 (S.2661), the United States now has a new National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to better address this this critical issue.2,5 Introduced in the United States Senate on October 22, 2019, the bill requiring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to “designate 9-8-8 as the universal telephone number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline” passed out of both chambers of the Congress in May and September of 2020 and was signed into law on October 17, 2020.5 The 988 number became fully operational across the nation on July 16, 2022.2
Being just three digits like 911 or 211, the new national hotline should be easy to remember, facilitating its usage by those in need. One hopes that its effect will be far reaching as more of the public becomes aware of this new resource. While 988 serves to promote suicide prevention, it would also be paramount to provide and promote additional mental health resources to address the suicide crisis upstream, nipping it in the bud before it blossoms into something more sinister.
Wonha Kim, MD, MPH, CPH, FAAP
Dr. Kim is the Director of the Institute for Health Policy and Leadership. She is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and of Preventive Medicine at the School of Medicine and an Assistant Professor for the School of Public Health. Her research interests include pediatric obesity, social determinants of health, global health and policy approaches to addressing health issues faced by vulnerable populations.