U.S. Officials Launch New Strategy to Prevent Suicide

New national strategy encourages talking frankly about suicide, taps Facebook as a prevention tool.

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Today, at least one person will die by suicide every 15 minutes. It's the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 33,000 American lives annually. Over the past year, more than 8 million adults reported having serious suicidal thoughts, 2.5 million made a suicide plan, and 1.1 million reported a suicide attempt. The problem is pervasive—and it knows no boundaries, U.S. officials said Monday while launching a new nationwide plan to prevent suicide.

"This issue touches virtually every family, and certainly every neighborhood and community in this great nation," said former senator Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters. Exactly nine years and two days ago, he lost his own son to suicide, and described the aftermath as "an overwhelming sense of grief and flow of tears." "It's an issue that registers as human, and not Democrat or Republican," he said. "And it is something we can do something about."

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The 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention outlines community-based approaches to curbing the incidence of suicide, with the goal of saving 20,000 lives over the next five years. It targets all Americans, with a special focus on military veterans and the younger set, and taps Facebook as a tool for reporting someone at risk. The plan comes with $55 million in federal grants to state, tribal, and community prevention efforts. It's built around the premise that making suicide prevention a part of routine healthcare, and getting people talking about suicide in homes, schools, and workplaces, will go a long way.

The last major U.S. plan to combat suicide was released in 2001. Since then, new research has shed light on who's most at risk, as well as how to best reach those people, said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin: "We know things now that we didn't know before. Though everyone is at risk, certain groups have a higher risk."

We now know, for example, that suicide and other health issues are often intertwined. Mental illness plays a big role—people with major depression are eight times more likely to commit suicide than their non-depressed peers—as does substance abuse. In 2008, alcohol was a factor in one-third of suicides in 16 states, and opiates (such as heroin and prescription painkillers) were present in 25.5 percent of suicide deaths. Other groups at increased risk include those in child welfare settings; the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender population; middle-aged and older men; and people with medical conditions ranging from cancer to asthma.

Officials have also seen a troubling rise in suicides among those enlisted in the military. Last year, there were 17,754 attempts among veterans, up from 10,888 in 2009, according to data from the Department of Veteran Affairs. "We're losing more of our soldiers to suicide than we are to combat," said Secretary of the Army John McHugh. And it's not just the trauma of serving in a violent, war-torn country: In 2010, 54 percent of those who committed suicide and 59 percent of those who tried had never even deployed. "We're dealing with substance abuse, financial distress, relationship problems," McHugh said. "All of these issues will endure beyond the war."

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The new prevention plan will help beef up special hotlines for those in the armed forces. Research suggests that crisis lines are a particularly helpful intervention tool, officials said. Scott Gould, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, described a mother who sensed that her son was losing hope as he struggled to readjust to civilian life. "She picked up the phone, called the VA crisis line, and said, 'My son needs help,'" Gould recalled. Shortly thereafter, counselors arrived at the young man's door and found him intoxicated and contemplating suicide. "We need to help people recognize that something is wrong and know what to do with that insight. It's going to take all of us," Gould said.