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Ethics & Religion
Column #2,018
April 15, 2020
How To Reduce Suicide
By Mike McManus

Some 47,173 Americans killed themselves in 2017 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That figure is the highest for the last 70 years with data.

The number of Americans who committed suicide soared 33% from 1999 to 2017. Today there are two suicides for every homicide. More people used to die in auto accidents than by suicide. Now it is the reverse, with twice as many killing themselves as die on highways.

Three groups are most vulnerable. First, women and girls between ages of 15 and 24 - who experienced the largest percentage increase - nearly double - their suicide deaths of 2000.

What caused this jump? According to Jean Twenge, a social psychologist at San Diego State University, "All signs point to the screen." Teens who spend five or more hours per day online - are 71% more likely to kill themselves than those who spent only an hour online.

The second most vulnerable group is very different - men between the ages of 45 and 64 - who make up the largest number of suicides - 12,371 in 2017. Why? Men aren't considered emotionally vulnerable. However, many men have found themselves economically superfluous, and have lost their jobs. Divorce, non-marriage and the decline of religiosity are factors. Their suicide rate is up 45% since 1999. Most of these suicides involved guns - which are nearly always lethal.

The third major group of self-killers are men, aged 75 and over. While their numbers are fewer than middle-aged men - only 3,347 - they have the highest likelihood of suicide at 39.7 deaths per 100,000 people vs. 14.0 for the population as a whole. Why? Most are widowers who miss their wives.

What can be done to reduce suicides?

First, recognize how common it is. About 1.3 million people attempted suicide in a year, half of whom required medical attention in emergency rooms. More young people die of suicide than die from cancer, AIDS, heart disease, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease - combined!

Second, gun laws need to be changed. Deaths in the Northeast, which has stricter gun laws - are half that of the West, with no gun laws. I urge passage of laws like those approved in Florida after Nicholas Cruz killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. The Florida Legislature raised the age for gun purchase from 18 to 21 in February, 2018 and established a waiting period to allow for a thorough background check of gun buyers. Bump Stocks were banned and potentially violent or mentally disturbed people were prohibited from owning a gun. Ideally, Congress should pass similar laws. Any state could follow Florida's example.

Third, remove guns from the homes of any person at risk - and other means of killing oneself such as an excessive number of sleeping pills.

Fourth, pastors, teachers and pastoral leaders need to know warning signs that someone is at risk for suicide. A person who talks about wanting to die or who expresses a feeling of hopelessness or of being trapped or who is in unbearable pain - may be considering killing themselves. Other danger signs: talking about being a burden to others, or someone who has increased their use of drugs or alcohol, or is acting anxious or agitated. They may behave recklessly, withdrawing or feeling isolated. Some also show rage, talk about taking revenge or display extreme mood change.

Fifth, suicide prevention must be led by people who have experienced the agony of the suicide of a friend or relative or colleague. For example, those who have answered 800,000 calls on the Suicide Prevention Hotline (800 273-8255) should help double the 161 local crisis centers and provide a Preventing Suicide Toolkit to every high school.

Finally, physicians must take more responsibility. According to Kathy Posner Gerstenhaber, a Columbia University psychiatry professor, half of those who take their own lives - had met with their primary care physicians in the month before they committed suicide! "We need to ask about suicide the way we monitor blood pressure," Dr. Posner Gerstenhaber asserts. The Lighthouse Project, which has a tag line, "Identify risk. Prevent Suicide." It recommends that physicians ask such questions as these: "Have you wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up? Have you actually had any thoughts about killing yourself? Have you done anything, started to do anything or prepared to do anything to end your life?

We all must all become more sensitive to those at risk of suicide.

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Copyright (c) 2019 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to www.ethicsandreligion.comm. Hit Search for any topic.


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