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Suicide Prevention Advancements

By Philip Rodgers, Ph.D., Evaluation Scientist, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Several years ago I attended a meeting of a group of suicide survivors. At one point, the moderator of this meeting asked the audience “How many of you believe that we can cut suicide deaths in half in the next ten years?” As I saw hands begin to rise around me, I began to sweat—I didn’t want to be the only one in the room not affirming such a positive and hopeful prediction, but neither did I want to raise my hand if I didn’t believe it could happen. I thought to myself, “what would it take to produce such a severe reduction in the suicide rate?” In my mind I began to construct a large equation to predict whether we could indeed cut the suicide rate in half given funding, national interest, medical breakthroughs, and other factors.  After substituting increased funding for X, and increased national interest for Y, and possible medical breakthroughs for Z, I slowly, timidly raised my hand.

Science, like my answer to that question, can be frustratingly, achingly slow, but it is the surest and most reliable method of expanding our knowledge of what actually works in suicide prevention. While there remain many questions about suicide and its prevention, the past decade has witnessed an unprecedented growth in our knowledge of how suicide can be prevented.

  • Recent treatment breakthroughs include research on Dialectical Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, both of which have demonstrated reductions in suicide attempts for those with at high risk for suicide.
  • Comprehensive public health initiatives (programs that address entire communities with multiple interventions) have shown reductions in serious suicide attempts in Native American Tribes and suicide deaths in the U.S. Air Force.
  • A recently completed international study found that a brief emergency room intervention following a suicide attempt decreased suicide deaths for those who received the intervention over those who did not receive the intervention.
  • A school-based program that trains peer leaders to model examples of help-seeking behavior has demonstrated an increased willingness on the part of students at risk for suicide to seek help from adults.

Science works best when it is collaborative: when scientists, survivors, and other stakeholders contribute to the process of knowledge building. This is best accomplished when all involved are open to the ideas, concerns, and needs of others. Scientists can help collaboration by taking the time to speak with survivors about the process and importance of the work that they are doing. Survivors can help collaboration by relating their experiences to scientists, helping them to understand their concerns.

One of my favorite quotes in regards to the field of suicide prevention is from H. L. Mencken, to paraphrase, Mencken said: “For every difficult problem there is a simple answer…that is wrong." There are no simple answers in the field of suicide prevention, but science, in collaboration with survivors and other stakeholders, is moving us in the direction of greater understanding of suicide and how it can be prevented.

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