Celebrity Suicides Trigger Dialogue About Suicide Prevention

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No town is immune to the national suicide “epidemic,” but unfortunately, suicide still carries such a social stigma that people are reluctant to talk about it; whether they’re close to someone who committed suicide, or have their own suicidal thoughts. 

A new Center for Disease Control (CDC) long-term study, released one day after fashion designer Kate Spade was found dead by suicide in New York on June 5, and two days before food and travel celebrity Anthony Bourdain ended his own life, reported that suicide rates rose dramatically across the U.S. from 1999 to 2016. Half of the states saw an increase of more than 30 percent, making suicide the nation’s 10th leading cause of death. Suicide rates increased in every state but Nevada. 

In 2016, the CDC reported, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide. Roughly half of the suicides in 2016 were carried out with a gun. Suffocation, including hanging, was the next most common method of suicide, followed by poisoning. Opioids were present in 31 percent of individuals who died by suicide.

California, and the LA area in particular, actually fares better than most of the rest of the country. Suicides in California increased six to 18 percent from 1999 to 2016. The suicide rate in the greater Los Angeles area is lower than the national and state averages, according to the LA Times.

In releasing the report, CDC officials underscored that more than half the people who died by suicide—54 percent—did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of their death. “While depression remains a major risk factor for suicide, suicide is actually very rare among those with chronic depression,” according to Deborah M. Stone, the lead author of the new study.

A CDC study examining suicide trends in 27 states found that in many cases, victims acted after experiencing relationship problems or loss; substance misuse; physical health problems; or job, money, legal or housing stress. In fact, 29.4 percent of suicide attempts took place within two weeks of a crisis—most commonly a breakup or other problem related to an intimate-partner relationship. 

The CDC study also found that the age group of greatest vulnerability for suicide was between 45 and 64, with surprising increases in the numbers of white women and Native Americans taking their own lives. The vast majority of those who took their own lives were men, at 76.8 percent, and white, at 83.6 percent.

Americans should learn the warning signs of suicide so they can recognize those at risk of harming themselves, according to the CDC. They recommend that if a person is at risk, the most important action is to take away any means they may have of ending their own life, especially bottles of pills and firearms.

The LA-based Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services nonprofit, which puts most of its resources toward suicide prevention and runs a 24/7 suicide crisis hotline, lists the following suicide warning signs: the person is actually threatening or planning suicide, giving away possessions, making out a will, sending out despairing texts or online posts, expressing feelings of failure or shame, showing signs of major depression, avoiding friends or engaging in risky behaviors.

They say risk factors for suicide include past suicide attempts, a loved one that committed suicide; the loss of a job, marriage, housing or health, or increased alcohol or drug use.

Pepperdine University has a fairly extensive program for preventing suicides, which includes “Step Up! Pepperdine,” described as, “A bystander intervention program and universitywide initiative that educates members of the Pepperdine community to be proactive in helping each other. What members learn about recognizing and assisting with depression/suicide is summarized in this link: community.pepperdine.edu/stepup/topics/depression.htm. 

Pepperdine also has professional resources for counseling and outreach in its Counseling Center, as well as a Student Health Center.

Dr. Tony Greenberg of Malibu serves on the Joint Commission (on hospital accreditation), which has developed protocols and concepts for identifying, evaluating and caring for patients with high suicide risk. 

“Learning about suicide prevention is very important. In my opinion, mental health disorders like depression are epidemic in our society, and not just because you hear about celebrities. As a society, we need to deal with it. A lot more study needs to be done,” Greenberg said in a phone interview.