Ellicott City, Maryland – My pager has been ringing off the hook all morning. I have attended to at least five patient crises since I set foot in the nursing home door this morning. All of them involve a patient who is having suicidal thoughts. Two have even attempted suicide in the past, and hence are more likely to attempt to take their lives yet again. I have had to send one to the hospital forcibly, without her consent, because she was threatening the nursing staff and yelling and screaming at her husband, who she thinks is dousing her with fire. This is a hallucination that she has had for years. Her husband was killed in a fire accident more than a decade ago. She is one of the more troubled ones at this nursing home, having attempted suicide several times before by tying the ventilator cord around her neck. As I contemplate all this, my pager rings again. “Doc you are needed in Room 450 A,” it says, as I make my way to the elevator door……….
This is from an actual day at the office for me. Depression and suicidality rates have shot up drastically in the United States in the last decade. There were 44,965 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC), National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual US suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in almost 30 years. Quietly, suicide is reaching epidemic proportions in this country.
While celebrity deaths such as those of Kate Spade, Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams have surely opened dialogue among people, many are still unaware of the terrifying figures of completed suicides in American every day. It is estimated that around 125 people take their own lives in the US every day. That statistic should send a shiver down all our collective spine. So, then what is the cause of this spike in suicides and what can we do about it?
We live in a media-riddled world. All of us have multiple devices which help us connect with everything that we need to survive– groceries, take-out dinners, clothes, daily essentials, concert tickets, and even love. There seems to be a plethora of available options for us to navigate life easily and comfortably, but it comes with a cost. Social media sites like Facebook have made it easier to digitally upload pictures of our lives in detail, whether it is our first car or our first house. This can also cause those of us suffering from clinical depression to become more depressed and lonely (https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/06/518362255/feeling-lonely-too-much-time-on-social-media-may-be-why). This social isolation and depression can engender feelings of helpless ness that can lead one to contemplate taking his/her life.
Another reason for the sudden spurt in suicides may be that suicides are getting reported more. This is an upside of increased media coverage, which is a kind of a necessary evil in this regard. With more coverage comes the downfall of more reported suicides. Also, this may be a spur to those looking to take their lives, especially when they see increased media attention to the topic.
Next, I am going to detail a few steps that we can all take to become aware and prevent this malaise from happening to our near and dear ones. A lot of people ask me how to check for the warning signs of suicidality among loved ones and what to do about it. What follows is my expert attempt to answer such questions.
When someone says, they want to commit suicide, or expresses a death wish, take them seriously. Research shows that a large percentage of completed suicides could have been prevented if the person voicing such a thought were taken seriously. Most depressed people do not want to commit suicide. If someone states it, then they are thinking seriously about it.
Contact a mental health professional for advice if you need to. Some of these professionals include doctoral-level providers such as psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, counselors and social-work therapists. Most insurance companies have a list of mental health professionals in your network available and ready to help you and your family our in times of crisis. Take you mental health seriously, as much as you do your physical health.
Try to look for warning signs of stress-related anxiety and depression in yourself and others. Pay close attention to what your body is telling you. A lot of times depression can manifest as physical symptoms such as aches, pains, and other bodily discomfort. If you have been feeling queasy or ill for several weeks, and there is no physiological explanation for it, it just maybe that you are suffering from stress-related illness. Seek expert medical help in that case.
Try to lead as much of a healthy lifestyle as you can. Regular social interaction, eating foods that are rich in vitamins and minerals, drinking plenty of water and fluids, getting at least six to seven hours of sleep every day, exercising regularly (even taking short walks), and maintaining a healthy network of friends and social interaction can help to ward off depression and other mental illnesses. A healthy lifestyle acts as a buffer against a genetic predisposition to develop mental illness.
If you are in crisis, and don’t know what to do and feel helpless, call the national suicide prevention hotline. Their no. is 1-800-273-8255. They have trained representatives available 24 hours to help you in times of acute crisis. And if all else fails, call 911 and have yourself admitted to a hospital.