Each September provides an opportunity to discuss a topic that is not easy to talk about and is rarely discussed openly – suicide.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, bringing this subject to the forefront of conversations as people open up about their struggles. We often avoid discussions of suicide due to the personal situations that also surround the issue. However, this topic should be acknowledged year-round, as it is a public health issue that affects all groups of people.

We often think it can’t happen in our families, but suicide is the third-leading cause of death in Mississippi among people 15-24 years of age. From 2014 through 2018, Mississippi lost 2,065 lives to suicide. That is 2,065 lives too many.

For health care professionals and advocates, this month’s recognition is a chance to share stories, provide facts, and educate on how to help someone struggling with thoughts of suicide. We can bring voice to an issue that is often kept quiet, despite how widespread it is.

For every person who dies by suicide, there are many more who think about it. Almost 11 million U.S. adults reported seriously thinking about suicide in 2018 alone. The Centers for Disease Control reported that 48,344 Americans died by suicide in 2018 - an average of one person every 11 minutes.

Each death by suicide affects so many people. Families and friends experience shock, anger, guilt, and depression. That’s why it’s so important to have conversations about suicide awareness and to understand the risk factors and warning signs of people struggling with suicidal thoughts. We should understand that help is always available and it’s ok to reach out to a loved one, a trusted friend, or to call a help line.

The Harris Poll recently conducted a national survey involving more than 2,000 U.S. adults. The survey found the overwhelming majority, 81 percent, believe suicide prevention needs to be a national priority as a result of COVID-19. The results indicated most Americans believe suicide can be prevented and that they would take action if someone close to them was expressing suicidal behavior.

Preventing suicide involves everyone in a family and in a community. Anyone can speak up and offer help. Healthcare providers can refer patients to other clinicians or even online resources. Employers can create healthy work environments and encourage people to seek help for both physical and mental health issues. The media can help by sharing resources when they write about the topic, especially when a death by suicide happens in their communities.

It is particularly important to know that speaking up does not increase the risk of someone else dying by suicide. Many people who have struggled with suicidal thoughts have noted their relief when another person recognized signs that something was wrong and offered support.

Those signs may be statements directly threatening harm, but they may also be everyday phrases like “I just can’t take this anymore” or “I wish this would all just end.” Other signs include increased alcohol or drug use, withdrawal from friends and family, and significant changes in someone’s mood.

One situation often misinterpreted is when someone becomes suddenly happy after a longer period of depression. It could be that someone is simply feeling better about his situation, but it can also mean he has made a final decision to take his own life. Don’t be afraid to ask someone if they have had thoughts of harming themselves. Yes, it may be difficult to say, but the simple fact is it shows that you care.

The Mississippi Department of Mental Health continues to work to engage and empower Mississippians to help prevent suicide by increasing awareness of suicide as a public health issue. DMH is partnering with the Mississippi State University Psychology Department to host its fourth annual Suicide Prevention Symposium on Sept. 29. The topic of this free, one-day, virtual event is “Fitting Suicide into Our Changing Times,” and will feature five different speakers. You can find more information about that event on the DMH web site and Facebook pages.

Even if you don’t plan to attend, we want everyone to know that help is always available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Help is also available through the Crisis Text Line, which is available by texting HOME to the number 741-741.

September may be National Suicide Prevention Month, but we should be focused on this topic all year. Knowing the signs and asking a simple question may save someone’s life. 

Diana Mikula is executive director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health.

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