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The impact of suicide: World Suicide Prevention Day and why suicide awareness matters

Each year over one million people worldwide die by suicide. In the United States, approximately 42,000 people die by suicide each year, with a suicide occurring every 12.3 minutes. It is the 10th leading cause of death overall, and the 2nd leading cause of death for youth under the age of 24. For World Suicide Prevention Day, we’d like to tell you why this matters to us and why it should matter to you.

A few things we’ve heard:

  • From a fellow parent at school: “I could not remember your email so did a quick google search and read through your profile. I wanted to say how much respect I have for the work you do
    regarding suicide prevention. My younger brother took his own life 2 ½ years ago and I know there are so many out there who have lost a loved one or know someone who has been affected by it.”
  • From a colleague: “I don’t think I told you before, but my brother took his life about 10 years ago.”
  • From a long-time family friend: “I wish I could attend the presentation you are giving. My mom killed herself, and I identify as a loss survivor.”

When someone dies by suicide, their family, loved ones, and communities are often forever changed. The long-held conventional wisdom is that suicide only really impacts close family members, and typically after a suicide, only those considered immediate kin are the recipients of sympathies and condolences. For a long time, this was thought to be only six people. It is #not6. Those who fall outside the circle of next-of-kin are frequently forgotten as grievers in the aftermath of a suicide death, but there is growing evidence that schools, workplaces, places of worship, and communities are also shaken by suicides.

We have developed a new continuum model which shows that a large portion of the population is exposed to suicide, meaning that they personally know someone who has died by suicide. In fact, our studies show that almost half of people report they have lifetime exposure to suicide– they personally know at least one person who has died by suicide. Of those exposed to suicide, some will experience a minor impact on their lives from the suicide, while further along the continuum of exposure others will go on to have short or long term bereavement with the death impacting their life in a devastating way.

 In the United States, approximately 42,000 people die by suicide each year, with a suicide occurring every 12.3 minutes.

Each suicide leaves behind as many as 130 people who report they directly knew the person. This means that there are probably up to 25 people for each suicide who have a great deal of distress following the suicide and are probably in need of services to get through the intense emotions. In the US, this represents 4.7 million people annually who are exposed to suicide. There are approximately 20.65 million suicide loss survivors from a suicide in the immediate family living in America (1 of every 15 Americans).

The impact of exposure to suicide deaths at the various points along the continuum is still largely unclear. What we do know is that suicide is a stigmatized death, and that many loss survivors struggle in the aftermath of the death. The stigma of suicide may mean that traditional sources of support and comfort are withdrawn from the loss survivor as those who would typically provide such support are uncomfortable or unsure of a proper response. Loss survivors may also experience self-imposed isolation, caused in part by a fear of judgment and negative reactions from others. There are so many people in our communities who have been directly affected by suicide but do not discuss it due to the shame and stigma individuals often feel about the suicide. The comments above come directly from people we’ve known in our extended personal networks, who perhaps only shared their loss experience because they knew the door to the conversation was open. Due to the unique nature of suicide bereavement, loss survivors are at an increased risk of depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, and suicide.

We also know that suicide affects everyone – white, middle aged males have the highest rates of suicide in the US, but suicide cuts across all demographic factors. While fear of negative reactions may prohibit those exposed to suicide from sharing their experience of loss, the reality is that recognizing they aren’t alone in the loss, feeling connected to others, and learning that their grief reactions are normal are important elements of the healing journey for loss survivors.

Discussion about exposure needs to include attempt survivors, those who have survived their own suicide attempt. Estimates suggest that there are 25 suicide attempts for each suicide death, which translates to 1.1 million adults who attempt suicide each year. A previous attempt increases risk for future attempts, though it is important to remember that hope and healing is possible. Because so many more people attempt suicide than die by suicide, even more than half the population is exposed to suicide attempts. Because suicide attempt survivors are still with us, living in our homes and communities, exposure to attempt survivors is important to suicide prevention and helping ensure that further losses to suicide don’t happen. Our colleague Dese’Rae Stage is helping show the wide variety of attempt survivors and we are working with her to understand what we can learn from attempt survivors.

What can you do? First, talk about suicide. Don’t be afraid to tell people that you knew or loved someone who attempted or died by suicide. Even if you don’t know someone personally, don’t be afraid to talk to people when you find out they have experienced a loss to suicide. Their grief is probably difficult and they might be used to getting hurtful answers or hiding their loss. Being open and honest about suicide helps people realize that this leading cause of death is something that affects so many of us. It is #not6.

Featured image credit: Worried Girl by Ryan McGuire. Public domain via Pixabay.

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  1. […] by some to end that time early is always deeply personal, and most often unexpectedly destructive, what many such people have historically had in common is the feeling not just […]

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