In the state of Virginia on average one person dies by suicide every eight hours. Nearly three times as many people die by suicide in Virginia annually than by homicide. It is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 and the fourth leading cause of death for ages 35 to 54. This is according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention whose statistics came from the Centers for Disease Control. As grim as these statistics are Virginia is not a leader in the nation’s rising suicide rates. It ranks 36.
Nationally, we not only know how many suicides were reported, 47,173 in 2017, but we have a portrait of who commits suicide. What we don’t really have is why. And not knowing why makes it difficult to prevent, particularly if the person at risk is flying under the radar, not receiving regular health care, not having access to mental health care and not having friends or family who would notice changes.
The picture becomes clearer as we look at the numbers. Nationally, white males accounted for 69.67 percent of the suicide deaths in 2017. The rate was highest in middle-age white men and the number appeared to be higher in rural areas. While this is the picture nationally, in Virginia it is young people who are at the greatest risk.
The methods of suicide are also accounted for. Slightly over half of all suicides are committed by gun; the second most common method is by suffocation, which includes hanging; and the third by poisoning. Obviously, keeping guns out of the hands and households of those who are suicidal would greatly reduce opportunity, and some states are doing just that. In many areas, there has also been an effort to secure medications to keep them from misuse, and some municipalities have put guardrails on bridges to keep people from jumping.
While the focus nationally may be on middle-aged adults, it is also clear that both depression and suicide have been increasing among teens and young adults since 2009. A study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology reported on by Time magazine indicated that in 2017, more than one in eight Americans ages 12 to 25 had a major depressive episode. The same researchers found rates of suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts all increased significantly.
And now, thanks to stories on CNN and PBS, there is a new awareness of increasing suicide in the elderly population. Across the United States the second highest rate of suicide occurred among those 85 years of age and older including those in assisted living and nursing home facilities. Their methods included overdosing, hanging, jumping out windows and at least in one case, a gun no one knew he had.
It seems this is an epidemic that reaches all ages and demographics and that is why Alexandria is hosting a serious conversation about the risks of suicide and prevention across the ages from children to the elderly.
U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, who is a member of the bipartisan Congressional Mental Health Caucus and co-chair of the Caucus Suicide Prevention Task Force, will speak about this issue. He will also act as a moderator in a conversation with Dr. Marcia Jackson, director of K-12 School Counseling in the Alexandria Public Schools; Officer Bennie Evans of the Alexandria Police; and Rhonda Williams, LCSW, therapist and Mental Health First Aid Instructor of the Alexandria Community Services Board. They will talk about how to identify risk factors and provide ways to help someone who is showing warning signs. Audience members are encouraged to ask questions. Printed resource materials will be provided to take home.
All residents are invited to this free community event on Wednesday, May 8 from 7 to 9 p.m. in the auditorium of the Minnie Howard campus , 3801 West Braddock Road in Alexandria.
The program is hosted by the Alexandria City Public Schools, Alexandria Community Services Board, Friends of the Alexandria Mental Health Center, the Partnership for a Healthier Alexandria and Senior Services of Alexandria. Sponsors include the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce , Alexandria Health Department and the Suicide Prevention Alliance of Northern Virginia.
For more information contact Laurie Flynn at 202-297-4554 or LaurieFlynn212@gmail.com.
If you are in a crisis call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text TALK to 741741.
Mary Anne Weber is a former chair of Alexandria Community Services Board.