By Becky Stoll, LCSW
New data from the Tennessee Department of Health shows the suicide rate in our state is at a record high. Tragically, a reported 1,110 Tennesseans intentionally took their lives in 2016, an average of three people per day. This is higher than the national average and up four percent from the previous year.
That statistic rivals the 1,631 Tennesseans who died in 2016 from drug overdoses—a year-over-year increase of 12 percent due in part to opioid use. Reporting on opioid related suicides, TIME.com stated, “The real number of suicides may be higher. Experts says there are many challenges and inconsistencies when it comes to deciding if any drug-related fatality was intentional.”
All told, suicide is a pressing issue in our local cities and rural towns alike. Centerstone clinical staff in Tennessee now screen all clients for suicidal thoughts, and I’ve personally trained others in suicide prevention on three continents. Suicide doesn’t discriminate, but there are common risk factors, warning signs and action steps to take when someone may be in danger.
Common risk factors
People at increased risk of suicide often share similar characteristics. These may include having a chronic physical condition, mental illness or addiction. Less social support from friends, family and community is also common. Do they have a background of trauma, prior attempts to end their life or a family history of suicide? Anyone who has shared an organized plan for suicide and has access to lethal means is a clear cause for concern.
Beyond those factors, people often show warning signs of suicide by talking or writing about death and dying. Sometimes they express feeling hopeless, worthless or trapped. Are they withdrawing from others; acting recklessly with drugs alcohol or engaging in risky activities; exhibiting rage or seeking revenge for past wrongs? A dramatic change in mood—even away from agitation—may need attention; those who die by suicide often seem happy once they’re determined to follow through with it.
How to help
What should you do when someone may be suicidal? First, ask direct questions and invite the person to share feelings. Be a good listener, avoid judgments and take the person seriously. Remove guns, stockpiled pills and any other items that provide means for suicide. Encourage anyone contemplating suicide to call an expert—Centerstone’s 24-hour crisis hotline is (800) 681-7444. Finally, remain engaged and seek help from a trained mental health professional for present and long-term support.
Today, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and a preventable public health concern. It’s important to know that help is available and hope can return. Knowing who’s at risk and the warning signs for suicide can literally save lives.
Becky Stoll, LCSW, is vice president for Crisis and Disaster Management at Centerstone (centerstone.org) in Nashville, Tennessee, and a member of the National Action Alliance’s Zero Suicide in Healthcare Advisory Group. She has led suicide prevention training throughout the U.S. including to local businesses, major airline companies and National Football League teams as well as in Europe and Australia.