By State Senator Julie Lassa
Suicide is not only a leading cause of death in Wisconsin, it has a tremendous impact on survivors and on our entire community. September is national Suicide Prevention Month, giving us an opportunity to learn more about the causes and warning signs of suicide and how we as individuals and our communities can keep more of these tragic deaths from occurring.
According to the most recent data available from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, suicide claims the lives of 724 Wisconsin residents each year on average, making it the 11th leading cause of death – the 4th leading cause among young people. Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg: for every death by suicide, there are 11 hospitalizations or emergency room visits due to self-inflicted injuries, and an unknown number of others who seek only outpatient care after a suicide attempt, or none at all. The cost of hospitalizations and in-patient emergency room visits due to suicide attempts is almost $400 million each year. And that does not count the grief and anger that family members and loved ones may carry, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
Not surprisingly, a high proportion of individuals who attempt suicide are struggling with mental health challenges, such as chronic depression. But suicide isn’t a mental health issue alone. Any set of life circumstances that leave people feeling isolated and helpless can promote suicidal thoughts. The challenges of adolescence and young adulthood, the loss of a job, the ending of a marriage or relationship, chronic illness, alcohol and drug abuse, the isolation and loneliness that the elderly often experience – all have the potential of putting people more at risk for suicide. As this list shows, suicide can threaten people of all walks of life at any age.
As individuals, it’s important to recognize the warning signs that a friend or loved one might be considering suicide, and to learn how to get help. People having suicidal thoughts may begin by voicing thoughts like “I wish I wasn’t here,” and withdrawing from friends and family. They may increase their use of drugs or alcohol, and begin to exhibit aggressive or reckless behavior. In later stages, they may express thoughts of killing themselves, and even put their affairs in order, giving personal items away, saying goodbye to family and friends, and gathering whatever they will use to attempt to take their life. If you see these signs, it’s important to seek the intervention of a trained mental health professional right away.
As a community, however, we should not wait to address suicide prevention until individuals are having suicidal thoughts. We know that many of the factors that increase suicide risk can be linked to adverse experiences in childhood, such as trauma, abuse and neglect. I have been advocating for evidence-based policies to help reduce adverse childhood experiences, which can cause a host of long-lasting problems; such policies would also aid in suicide prevention. A greater availability of mental health treatment services would also help address suicide risk factors, as would counseling and peer-to-peer support for young people, seniors, and the unemployed. Finally, we can work together as a community to reduce the stigma so often attached to mental and emotional problems, so that more people who suffer in these ways will feel safe to seek help.
If you’re considering suicide, or if you know someone who may be, help is available. Visit the Prevent Suicide Wisconsin website at www.preventsuicidewi.org, where you’ll find a list of local crisis hotlines throughout the state. Or call the national Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Suicide Prevention Month is a good opportunity to have an honest conversation about this preventable tragedy and to promote better mental health for everyone.