Education Is Critical to Preventing Suicide


“Suicide” is a word most of us avoid and rarely, if ever, speak. A couple of generations ago the word “cancer” was never spoken either, except in hushed whispers. In 1999 then-Surgeon General David Satcher described suicide as “a serious public health issue, which is largely preventable.” Shedding light on suicide warning signs and talking openly about it with someone you think may be at risk are the best ways to prevent suicide.

When suicide is mentioned, it is often in the context of grim statistics. In New Hampshire, it is the second-leading cause of death between the ages of 10 and 34, the fourth-leading cause between ages 35 and 54, and the 10th-leading cause of death across all age groups.

There are, however, other much more important and hopeful statistics that are rarely cited — such as that over 75 percent of people who die by suicide give some type of warning or indication that they are contemplating suicide. Sadly, indications often go unrecognized or the signs are unheeded out of ignorance. The percentage of youth who give advance warning is even higher. Another important statistic is that over 90 percent of people who attempt suicide do not go on to die by suicide.

These statistics belie common misconceptions about suicide. They demonstrate, for example, that most people who are suicidal really don’t want to die; they want to end the emotional or sometimes physical pain that they are having. The statistics also indicate that better education about the warning signs for suicide is imperative, as well as information about what to do if someone appears suicidal.

When asked, most people can cite the symptoms of a heart attack and know how to respond. We need to educate the public so that it attains comparable knowledge about suicide. Warning signs such as talking about suicide or death, and looking for the means to kill oneself are indicators of very high risk and should not be ignored. Other warning signs such as feelings of hopelessness, withdrawal from family and friends, viewing oneself as a burden, anger or irritability, and increased drug or alcohol use are also important warning signs.

When we see people with an obvious physical injury — a bandage, limp, cut or a cast — we don’t hesitate to ask if they are OK. Yet when someone is in obvious emotional pain or distress, we often shy away from them and figure it is none of our business. One person can make a difference by reaching out and talking to a distressed person. Showing concern by telling the person that you care and asking how you can help may save a life.

The Upper Valley area has long been in a leader in efforts to prevent suicide in New Hampshire, thanks in part to the fact that Headrest, located in Lebanon, is a certified 24/7 crisis call center for New Hampshire and Vermont, helping connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are thinking about suicide or are concerned about someone who may be at risk, the number to call is (800) 273-8255.

Today, Route 120 will be the site of a Walk for Awareness to promote further suicide-prevention efforts. Organized by students at Hanover and Lebanon high schools, the event will bring together students from six area high schools. The walk is not for raising funds. Instead, the focus is to increase knowledge of warning signs and how to help peers who may be at risk. The walk is also designed to promote relationships and common bonds among area youth.

Connectedness and a sense of belonging are key factors in helping reduce risk for death by suicide. Reaching out to connect with someone in psychological pain decreases the sense of isolation and hopelessness that often are precursors of suicide. Recognizing warning signs, expressing concern and listening are things we can all do and that can ultimately save a life. It is great to see high school students promote this for each other and our communities through the Walk for Awareness.

Ken Norton is the executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness-NH. He helped develop The Connect Project, a program that provides training in suicide prevention and intervention. He also helped write New Hampshire’s suicide prevention plan and legislation that established a state Suicide Prevention Council. The Walk For Awareness, from Hanover to Lebanon, will take place today, starting at 1 p.m. at Hanover High. The co-host schools have invited students from Hartford High, Thetford Academy, Rivendell Academy and Mascoma Valley Regional High School to join the walk.