They may seem small and may be symbolic, but Britain and Japan both are taking steps to deal with suicide, a public health menace by which 45,000 Americans age 10 or older took their lives by their own hand in 2016 alone.
In Britain, the New York Times reported that Prime Minister Theresa May appointed health minister Jackie Doyle-Price to lead “government efforts to cut the number of suicides and overcome the stigma that prevents people with mental health problems from seeking help. While suicide rates have dropped in recent years, about 4,500 people take their own lives each year in England. It remains the leading cause of death for men under age 45.”
Britain, like the United States, has struggled to provide adequate and appropriate mental health care to its people, even though it has a national health service. And Britons, like their friends across the ocean, are reluctant to seek mental health care for multiple reasons, including stigmatization.
But the government wants to increase public awareness of suicide prevention and has promised to boost support for mental health services, the newspaper reported, noting that the British push will include a focus on helping troubled young people — a quarter of whom can’t get the assistance they need from the national health system.
Britain also announced it will fund a “Samaritans’ help line, a free, confidential 24-hour phone line that provides help for those with suicidal thoughts and other mental health issues.”
In the United States, such a service exists already: If you or someone you know needs help, the National Suicide Prevention Help Line is available 24/7 by calling: 1-800-273-8255.
This summer, after the deaths of several prominent personalities, including chef-adventurer Anthony Bourdain and fashion designer-entrepreneur Kate Spade, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said suicide no longer should be viewed solely as an individual problem but rather as a national public health crisis.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, and one of three that is increasing, experts have said. The other two are Alzheimer’s disease and drug overdose, in part because of the spike in opioid deaths.
Firearms were by far the leading method for someone taking their own life, accounting for about half of suicides. That number has remained steady over recent decades. Slightly more than half of people who had committed suicide did not have any known mental health condition. But other problems — such as the loss of a relationship, financial setbacks, substance abuse and eviction — were common precursors, both among those who had a mental health diagnosis and those who did not. Men accounted for three-quarters of all suicides. The numbers were highest among non-Hispanic whites, and among those aged 45 to 65 years old.
Preventive steps have become more key as experts have focused their attention on suicide. Medical students recently put a poignant spotlight on the role of gun violence and its related harms, including suicide. Kaiser Health News and NPR reported recently on more than 100 cases involving elderly gun owners with dementia who have used their weapons to harm or kill themselves and others.
In Japan, according to a report from the World Economic Forum, engineers not only have put a priority on making the nation’s legendary public transit system run on time and with remarkable efficiency, but also on ensuring that high-speed trains and their stations don’t become spots prone to suicide attempts.
The Japanese strive to reduce the stress of commuting — which is a big part of millions of lives in a crowded country — with clear signage, well-designed maps, and easy to understand public announcements. They also employ melodious and calming arrival and departure sounds, rather than clanging bells or noisy buzzers. They reportedly use ultra sounds, inaudible to older passengers, to annoy younger people just enough so they don’t hang around and cause trouble in stations.
They also deploy blue lights on platforms and throughout public areas because studies have shown these make people feel better and calmer, lessening the number of suicides in areas where they shine. Suicide in Japan is a significant matter, leading to the deaths of more than 25,000 annually.
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical care, I also know the havoc that can be wreaked on loved ones and friends when troubled individuals, who need our support and help, attempt and commit suicide. We need to do much more to provide desperately needed mental health services to those who need them — and we need to ensure they experience no shame in using them, just as they would any type of appropriate medical care. We need to learn how to spot loved ones, friends, and colleagues who may be at risk, and to provide support and comfort to them, as well as to those who may survive them, if they harm or kill themselves.
In these times when too many of us also live in unacceptable isolation and loneliness that harms our health and shortens our lives and lessens their quality, it may take commitment and caring to reach out to help each other. We must. And we all can do it, even if just a little at a time.