Every year in the United States, there are approximately 33,000 reported suicides, more than twice the number of homicides. The number of suicide attempts reported every year is roughly 1.1 million. It is the third leading cause of death among young people aged 15 - 24. Other groups at higher risk include older adults, "non-Hispanic Whites," "Native Americans and Alaska Natives." But the risk factors for suicide - e.g. depression and other mental health disorders, drug or alcohol use, family history, exposure to suicidal behavior of others (even celebrities) - can affect anyone.
Unfortunately, the warning signs of suicide risk often go unnoticed. Even when they are noticed, the taboo against discussing suicide (along with mental health problems in general) prevents many people from getting help that could save their lives.
Consider the fact that tens of millions of Americans have been trained in CPR and first aid to address physical illness and injury. But few of us are ever given any instruction on how to address mental illness and injury. In the aftermath of suicide, we all too often hear that people "had no idea" their friend or family member was in trouble. Or, "I knew she'd been depressed, but I never thought she would kill herself."
I sometimes wonder what it would be like if we could suddenly see the psychological injuries people carry with them as easily as we can spot someone with a broken leg or a bleeding wound. With more than 1 in 4 US adults suffering a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, we might feel like we were living in a disaster zone.
The good news is that we don't need special powers to notice these injuries in others, and we don't need counseling degrees to offer some much needed help. All we need is a bit more awareness and empathy, two qualities that are the foundation of the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) that I attended last weekend.