MONDAY, Sept. 10, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Hoping to curb the escalating suicide rate in the United States, especially among military personnel and young Americans, health officials are spearheading a program that encompasses Facebook and other private companies.
"America loses approximately 100 Americans every 24 hours from suicide," said Pamela Hyde, administrator of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, at a press conference Monday morning. Among people 18 to 24, suicide is now the third leading cause of death, officials said.
U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin said, "It's time to turn our attention to prevention."
The new strategy brings together government, the private sector, schools and communities to raise suicide awareness, increase prevention efforts and develop new treatments for those at risk, she said, speaking at the news conference.
In 2009, more than 37,000 Americans took their own lives, and "more than 500,000 Americans were depressed enough to have actually tried it," Hyde said.
This is as critical a public health issue as good drinking water, safe food and infectious-disease prevention, Hyde said.
The military has been hit particularly hard. "Right now we are losing more of our soldiers to suicide than we are to combat," said Army Secretary John McHugh.
Many military suicides aren't combat related, he noted. Fifty-four percent of military personnel who committed suicide in 2010 and 59 percent who attempted suicide that year were never deployed, McHugh said at the press conference.
"What this tells us is we are dealing with broader societal issues," he said. These include drug and alcohol abuse, relationship problems and depression, he said.
Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said that in July alone "the Army lost 38 soldiers to suicide -- an all-time and [one-] month high."
Overall, U.S. suicides declined in the 1990s, but have since begun to rise again, she said.
This new effort draws on government and private companies such as Facebook and ValueOptions, the privately owned behavioral health maintenance organization
Sebelius said $56 million of federal money will help fund suicide-prevention programs under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act. The act was signed into law in memory of the son of Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters and a former U.S. Senator, who took his life nine years ago.
"Our goal is, in the next five years we will save 20,000 human lives," Smith said at the press conference. "This issue touches nearly every family. It is something we can do something about. It's the work of angels."
Facebook is making online crisis help available, Marne Levine, the company's vice president for global public policy, said at the press conference.
"We provide intervention assistance to people in distress," she said. Last December, the company launched a program to connect people at risk for suicide with online suicide-prevention counselors at Lifeline, the emergency response service, Levine said.
Scott Gould, deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the VA's expanded efforts to reach veterans at risk for suicide have saved the lives of 23,000 vets to date.
For more information on suicide, visit the U.S. National Library of Medicine.