In support of World Suicide Prevention Day

By the time you’ve queued for your first cup of coffee, or finished reading this blog, a young person in the United States will have taken his or her life. In 2016, 44,965 Americans took their own life. That’s 123 suicides every day, or one every 12 minutes. The annual age adjusted suicide rate is 13.42 years. Unlike some other countries, the suicide rate in the US is increasing. Between 1999 and 2014 the suicide rate increased 24%. This really bothers me; and I want it to bother you too. I want you to take this tragedy personally. The question is how.

I think one of the problems we all face when trying to wrap our hearts around the implications of these data is best summarized by, of all people, Joseph Stalin. The Russian dictator famously said, “when one person dies of hunger it is a tragedy: when millions die that’s a statistic”. By this definition, the current suicide rate exists as a number within the realm of statistics. To change our perspective we need to make suicide personal. We need to take this overwhelming data and make it a tragedy, not a statistic. To do this I’m going to use Stanley Milligrams famous finding that any two people in the world are only separated by six degrees of separation. Using Milligrams small world theory I have found I’m 4 degrees from Barack Obama and 5 from the Dalai Lama. I’ve also discovered I’m 2 steps away from a young person who committed suicide, and 1 step away from a 43 year old man who took his life during the time I wrote this piece. It’s personal now. I have a face and a name. Not just a statistic.

Why Now?

It’s beyond the purpose of this piece to go into all the many details about why modern day society creates the necessary conditions for the increase in suicide rates. However, there are some details that help put these data in context. Suicide is not the sole preserve of those living in poverty or who lack education or opportunity: it’s an equal opportunity problem whose origins seem to be related to our technological, economic and societal advances. In his book Homo Deus, historian and philosopher Yuval Harari positions suicide as a symptom of advanced societies.

 “Despite our unprecedented achievements in the last few decades, it is far from obvious that contemporary people are significantly more satisfied than their ancestors in bygone years. Indeed, it is an ominous sign that despite higher prosperity, comfort and security, the rate of suicide in the developed world is also much higher than in traditional societies. “In Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and Albania – developing countries suffering from poverty and political instability – about one person in 100,000 commits suicide each year. In rich and peaceful countries such as Switzerland, France, Japan and New Zealand, twenty-five people per 100,000 take their own lives annually.”

Making it Personal

So what can you do to wrap your heart and mind around this tragedy and take committed action? First, I want you to determine how many degrees of separation are between you and a person who has committed suicide. This is a real person we have been unable to help. You might be surprised how small your world is: make it personal. Second, using these guidelines I want you to sensitize yourself to some of the warning signs of suicidal behavior. If you see or suspect  someone you know may be struggling or in pain, reach out and make a difference. Most importantly, if you see or suspect something it’s on you to say something.

  • Loss of a relationship
  • Lack of social support and sense of isolation
  • Stigma associated with asking for help
  • Cultural or religious beliefs, such as the belief that suicide is a noble resolution of a personal dilemma
  • Mental disorders such as mood and anxiety disorders
  • Alcohol and other substance use disorders
  • Hopelessness
  • Impulsive/aggressive tendencies
  • History of trauma and abuse
  • Major physical illness
  • Job or financial loss
Suicide isn’t Inevitable

The essential truth of suicide is that it’s a problem that won’t go away on its own. However, data from the United Kingdom demonstrates that we can make a difference. The suicide rate in the UK has gone down by 4.7% due to a multi-stage intervention including appointing a ‘Minister for Loneliness’, urging people to talk about and normalize discussing mental health issues, and improving access to psychological therapies.

Today, make a difference. Make suicide personal: talk about it to friends, talk about it at work, understand the risk factors and, if appropriate, reach out and provide support for someone in pain.  And remember, suicide isn’t an inevitable outcome for anyone, and that you can make a difference.


*I realize that for some suicide is very personal. For survivors, family and friends it’s beyond personal. This blog is to help others begin to empathize with your pain.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. 1-800-273-8255