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Thinking About Suicide is Painful... and Prevalent

U.S. launches campaign; survey calls suicide a critical health problem

WEDNESDAY, May 2 (HealthScout) -- If you've had suicidal thoughts, you're not alone.

Approximately 4 percent of American adults -- 8.6 million people -- have considered killing themselves, according to a new survey. And more than 3 percent of adults have been plagued with thoughts of suicide for at least a two-week period.

In addition, 17 percent of undiagnosed adults who believe they suffer from depression have suicidal thoughts, says Jeremy Kisch, senior director for clinical education for the National Mental Health Association (NHMA), which sponsored the survey.

"More importantly, among those who have been diagnosed by a physician for having either depression or anxiety, the [suicide] rate is 27 percent," Kisch adds.

Suicide is a critical public health problem, he adds.

"In effect, what this survey is telling us is that the problem with suicide in our society is considerable. It's more pervasive than people commonly believe, and clearly depression is a warning sign for suicide."

The release of the survey today coincided with U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher's unveiling of a major initiative to combat suicide.

Satcher's plan calls for 11 goals and 68 measurable objectives for public and private sector involvement to prevent suicide. They include:

  • creating community-based suicide prevention programs "that build life skills, beliefs and values and connections to family and community support,"
  • expanding suicide screening by primary care providers, and
  • increasing the number of states that require health insurance plans to cover mental health and substance abuse.

"Only recently have the knowledge and tools become available to approach suicide as a preventable problem with realistic opportunities to save many lives," Satcher said in a statement today. "The public health approach laid out in this national strategy represents a rational and organized way to marshal prevention efforts and ensure that they are effective."

The NHMA survey, conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide Inc., asked a representative sample of 3,200 adults a series of questions about their emotional and physical well-being. For example, did they experience a "sad, anxious or empty mood?" Or were they "feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless?" Respondents were also asked if those feelings had ever extended over a two-week period.

The issue about thoughts of suicide was the final question.

Depression is widespread

In addition to the findings on suicide, the survey reported that 32 percent of adults said they had experienced the six symptoms doctors use to diagnose clinical depression or general anxiety disorder. But only 13 percent believed they had a mental disorder, Kisch says. "Even among those individuals diagnosed by a doctor, only 41 percent believe they have a mental disorder," he adds.

Suicide was the eighth-leading cause of death in America in 1999, the most recent statistics available. It was also the third-leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

In 1996, 30,903 Americans killed themselves, accounting for 1 percent of all deaths in the U.S. This compared to 32 percent of deaths from heart disease, 23 percent from cancer, and 7 percent from stroke -- the top three causes of death in the United States.

There were three suicides in the U.S. for every two homicides committed in 1996.

One of the nation's experts on suicide says more research is needed to find out what treatments will help keep someone from taking his or her life.

"You have to do the same things that were done with cancer and heart disease," says Dr. Herbert Hendin, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"One of the things you can do is establish a collaboration of medical centers that are in a position to test medicines and treatments on a large population, so that you can figure out what treatments are effective," he says.

While drugs like lithium have been effective for the treatment of bipolar disorder( also known as manic-depression), perhaps other mood stabilizers can be found, Hendin says.

What To Do

For more information on suicide, visit the U.S. Surgeon General, or the National Mental Health Association.

Or read these HealthScout stories on suicide.

SOURCES: Interviews with Jeremy Kisch, Ph.D., senior director for clinical education, National Mental Health Association, Alexandria, Va.; and Herbert Hendin, M.D., medical director, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, New York City; May 2, 2001 National Mental Health Association press release; and U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher press release
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