By Atif Qarni, Daniel Carey, Brian Moran and Carlos Hopkins
September marks the start of the new school year in schools across Virginia, and it also is Suicide Prevention Month. As we see more young people dying by suicide or attempting suicide, we must work harder to raise awareness of how to help people in crisis.
In the United States, someone dies by suicide every 11 minutes. The number of people who commit suicide in Virginia has steadily increased over the past 10 years, peaking at 1,210 in 2018. Rates of suicide attempts, serious psychological distress and major depressive episodes are rising more rapidly among adolescents and young adults than any other age group. Last year alone, 231 Virginia youth and young adults died by suicide, the highest number in state history. Each death by suicide has a heart-wrenching impact on a family, workplace, community, school or place of worship.
This month, we launched a yearlong campaign to help every Virginian learn to recognize signs of crisis and offer help. “Recognize. Talk. Act” equips people to recognize signs of suicidal ideation and hopelessness, engage with at-risk individuals, take practical steps to refer people to resources and reduce access to lethal means such as medications and guns.
The commonwealth also is working to establish best practices for suicide prevention among service members, veterans and their family members. Virginia is one of seven states participating in the Governor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and their Families. This effort includes collaborative efforts with federal, state and local partners, as well as a commitment to education.
The first step to helping an individual who is considering ending his or her life is recognizing the signs. Almost everyone who is at risk or in crisis will have behavior changes. Significant changes in personality, appearance and behavior, as well as isolation or withdrawal, could indicate a person might be thinking about suicide.
Talking about suicide saves lives and reduces stigma. “Are you thinking about ending your life?” is the most important question you can ask someone you suspect to be in crisis. These courageous conversations encourage people to seek help and aid survivors in healing. If someone tells you he or she is considering suicide, it cannot remain a secret. If you are concerned about a family member or friend, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), reach out to your local community services board or health department, or go to the nearest emergency room.
One of the most important ways to prevent suicide is by reducing access to lethal means, such as guns and medications. About 50% of people who attempt suicide make the decision to take their life impulsively, so removing objects that might be used for a suicide attempt could save a life. Firearms, medications, illicit drugs, household chemicals, poisons or materials that could be used for hanging or suffocation should not be easy to access for someone at risk.
Throughout Virginia, many local community services boards are implementing a project called Lock and Talk, which promotes responsible storage of guns, medications and other forms of lethal means.
Schools are a key setting for youth suicide prevention. Teachers, mental health providers, school resource officers and all other school personnel play an important role in keeping Virginia’s students safe. This year, the Northam administration secured $12 million to improve staffing ratios for school counselors and $1.7 million for school resource officers. This funding will help Virginia’s education system address the social and emotional needs of students.
Our state agencies have produced an electronic toolkit for schools, available online at www.RecognizeTalkAct.org, which includes suicide prevention tips and resources. We encourage every school, student and family to use these resources to make an action plan for your school or household.
Promoting safe and responsible care of lethal means — while encouraging community conversations around mental wellness — is vital in preventing suicides and promoting wellness. As a physician and Army veteran, Gov. Ralph Northam is committed to addressing the health care needs of all Virginians.
We each have a role to play in recognizing the signs of suicidal ideation, starting courageous conversations and making our homes and communities safer for people who might be in crisis. Suicide prevention will take all of our efforts, and we remain committed to supporting Virginia’s schools, military and local communities as we all strive to reduce the number of deaths by suicide in the commonwealth.