Suicide is now the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. The consequence isn’t just the collective emotional toll it takes on our nation—suicide costs the U.S. $44 billion dollars annually. If this were a physical illness, we would long ago have taken direct, immediate action. It’s time to take a public health approach to suicide.

Inflection point

Many of us shy away from the subject; yet most people have been touched by issues of mental health in some way, either in relation to someone they know or by virtue of their own struggle. We’ve reached a turning point, though.

According to a Harris Poll conducted this past year by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the leader in the fight against suicide and the largest private funder of suicide research, 90 percent of Americans value mental health and physical health equally. Nine out of 10 people believe that suicide can be prevented.

The good news is, they’re right. Proven methods have been shown to dramatically stem the tide of suicide.  

Initial barriers

We understand so much more about suicide than most people realize. First and foremost, we know that prevention programs work. We also know that no one dies by suicide due to cowardice or lack of fortitude. Suicide risk increases when multiple risk factors converge. A single stressor like a lost job or an impending divorce doesn’t cause someone to take his or her life.

“It’s well known that over 90 percent of the people who die by suicide were suffering from a mental health condition at the time of their death, although all too often undiagnosed, untreated or undertreated.”

Rather, a number of risk factors can pile up, such as childhood trauma or prolonged stress; an underlying mental health condition; serious physical illness or chronic pain and access to lethal means. And these can be offset by the presence of protective factors, such as social support and connectedness, coping and problem-solving skills, cultural or religious beliefs and receiving effective mental health care.

Circumstance is key

Another important point is that timing, and means, really matter. The notion that people who are bent on suicide will find a way simply isn’t true. We know through research that the moment of the intense suicidal urge is very short; for many, the period of immediate danger lasts only a brief moment.

Making lethal means less accessible during critical periods of distress saves lives. If a person can live through the high-intensity period of suicide risk, or if he survives an attempt, there is a very high likelihood of not re-attempting later in life. So what can we do?

Hands-on training

We must provide universal education to ensure that everyone is versed in the basic common language of mental health. This doesn’t just go for the average citizen, who should feel as comfortable seeing a therapist when experiencing anxiety or depression as they would visiting a medical doctor at the first signs of physical pain. General health care practitioners, teachers and first responders should be trained to recognize the signs of deteriorating mental health, so that we can help people before they’ve reached the point of contemplating suicide.

It’s well known that over 90 percent of the people who die by suicide were suffering from a mental health condition at the time of their death, although all too often undiagnosed, untreated or undertreated. We must ensure access to mental health care, as outlined by the Mental Health Parity Act, and push for further legislation that puts into effect simple, common sense strategies that lead to early detection of mental health conditions.

By educating our communities about suicide prevention, talking about ways to strengthen our mental health more openly and doing what we know works, we can shed light on a very real public health problem—and save lives.