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Mental Health Professionals Battle Rising Suicide Rates

The word "suicide" comes from the Latin word suicidium, meaning "to kill oneself." But suicide has repercussions beyond the one person who dies, as they leave behind friends, family, and classmates or coworkers who are affected by the loss.

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Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in this country, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports over 38,000 suicides in 2010. Among young people aged 15 through 24, suicide is the third most common cause of death after accidents and homicides, according to a CDC overview. Even more young people think about it -- for every completed suicide in this age group, there are about 100-200 attempts.

What's behind the rising number of suicides, and how do we fight back against this trend? Dr. Alex Lickerman suggests that the six top reasons behind suicide could be depression, psychosis, cries for help, impulsive behavior, a tragic mistake or a philosophical desire to die. The CDC lists additional youth risk factors such as alcohol or drug abuse, a stressful life event or loss, exposure to suicidal behavior in others, and easy access to lethal methods.

Suicide rates on the rise

The incidence of suicide among U.S. adults aged 35 to 64 jumped by 28 percent from 1999 to 2010. More Americans now commit suicide than die in car accidents, according to the CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The reason for the increased frequency isn't clear, but the effects of the recent recession and easy access to prescription drugs could be at least partly to blame. Another factor may be the historically high rates of suicide among the baby boomer generation.

There might also be some truth to the "suicide contagion" theory. Research by the American Association of Suicidology and other organizations found that when the media covers this topic, the way the story is treated might trigger others to think about or attempt suicide. When a particular death receives a great amount of coverage, or stories are reported in a dramatic fashion, suicide rates tend to go up shortly after the information is presented.

Watch out for warning signs

The American Psychological Association notes that one key to suicide prevention is recognizing the signs of who is at risk. In many cases, individuals give clues about their thoughts or plans. The following could be warning flags for teens considering suicide:

  1. A recent, significant life change: Major changes such as divorce, death, a broken relationship, separation, a humiliating event or intense bullying.
  2. Changes in behavior or habits: Not sleeping well or sleeping too much, having nightmares, overeating or not eating enough, inability to concentrate on school or spending less time with friends.
  3. Personality changes: Low self-esteem; becoming withdrawn, irritable or anxious; not seeming to care; or expressing feelings of shame, guilt, self-hatred or worthlessness.
  4. Losing control: Behaving erratically, taking ridiculous risks or trying to harm themselves or others.
  5. Feelings of hopelessness: The feeling that nothing will ever get better or a situation will never change.
  6. Mentions of dying. Discussions of what death might be like, ways that someone might die, what the world would be like without them, or mention of disappearing.

It is crucial to take action when someone appears to be suicidal -- and don't let your own feelings about the situation cloud your reaction. "You can't assume that, because you don't think this is worth being suicidal about, that that person feels the same way," clinical psychiatrist Dr. Alan Manevitz told HealthDay. "It's not how bad the problem is, but it's how badly the person is experiencing it. Usually, that's a cry for help."

What else can you do to help?

How can we wage the battle against suicide? Pay close attention to someone who has just gone through a serious crisis or loss, and watch out for persons who might be at risk. Careful monitoring of those who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse may also help head off trouble. The National Institute of Mental Health points out the importance of proper medications, psychotherapy and training for health professionals in how to spot suicide risks.

The media can also strive to prevent copycat suicides by avoiding glamorized reporting and use of the word "suicide" in headlines. In addition, the power of the media can be helpful in sharing information on suicide prevention and signs, as well as stories on lifesaving treatment.

Suicide prevention programs are available at state and local levels as well as in communities and schools. One school-based program, Stop a Suicide Today!, shows how to recognize danger signs in family members and friends. The Teen Screen Program is a community-based initiative that screens youth for mental health issues or suicidal thoughts. Psychologists, counselors and social workers also try to help individuals change self-destructive behaviors.

For those who need immediate help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be a literal lifesaver. This lifeline connects those in crisis to someone who can help them, with services for veterans and Spanish-speakers. This resource can be reached on the Web or at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

About the Author:

Shannon Dauphin Lee has been writing professionally for almost two decades on a wide variety of topics, including medical and health issues, home repair and relationships. She is the author of several published novels.