There has been some good health news for the U.S. recently, though we must remain vigilant if the trend is to continue.
The U.S. suicide rate fell slightly last year, the first annual decline in more than a decade, according to new government data. It’s a small decrease and the data is preliminary, but the decline is “really exciting,” Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told The Associated Press.
Suicides had been on the rise since 2005. In 2018, the national suicide rate hit its highest level since 1941 — 14.2 per 100,000 people. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently posted new death-rate data showing that for 2019 the suicide rate dropped to 13.9.
Experts believe the decline may be partly because of years of suicide prevention efforts and a solid pre-pandemic economy. Those efforts have been made locally as well: Health providers such as Ozark Center, the behavioral health branch of Freeman Health System, have upped their suicide prevention programs in recent years, and the Missouri chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention over the weekend held an event in Joplin to promote suicide awareness.
There is reason to celebrate the decline in suicides. Any life saved from better mental health screenings, more access to treatment or a general reduced stigma surrounding suicide is good.
But we should be cautious moving forward.
For one thing, it's not clear how the COVID-19 pandemic — which earlier this year sparked business closures and stay-at-home orders that experts fear will worsen Americans' mental health and substance abuse — will influence suicide rates. It's possible the 2019 decline in numbers could be negated by the impact of the coronavirus and its effects in 2020, and we as a nation should be prepared to redouble our efforts to help those who are struggling.
Secondly, there are pockets of the population who are still at high risk of suicide or suicide attempts. Among them are LGBTQ youths, almost a quarter of whom attempted suicide last year — nearly four times the rate of their heterosexual peers, according to The Trevor Project. We must acknowledge the very real risk that some in our community face and focus our efforts toward them.
Let's celebrate the lives saved while continuing the hard work of bringing suicide rates down.
If you're thinking about suicide or are worried about a friend or loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Services are free and are available in English and Spanish. Ozark Center also offers a 24-hour crisis line at 417-347-7720 or 800-247-0661.