Opinion Columns & Blogs

Suicide prevention needs country’s attention

The spike in suicides across America is an urgent problem in need of bold and fervent leadership. The events of the past week are illustrative.

Iconic fashion designer Kate Spade’s suicide last Tuesday at the age of 55 was devastating, even for those who did not follow her career. Spade left behind a husband of 24 years and a 13-year-old daughter. She had battled depression and suspected bipolar disorder for many years. This was a mega-talented woman with vast wealth and adoring fans across the world. But as we have learned through many past high-profile suicides, depression is a complex and powerful disease that does not bow to fame and fortune.

On the heels of Spade’s suicide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also issued a report last week reflecting that suicide rates are rising sharply in almost every state. Twenty-five states have seen suicide rates increase by more than 30 percent between 1999 and 2016, and the overall U.S. rate increased by 25.4 percent over this period.

Local news outlets also covered the CDC’s new Kansas-specific data contained in its report, which is even more difficult to absorb. During the same 17-year period, the suicide rate in Kansas increased by a staggering 45 percent – eclipsing the national average by nearly 20 percent. Only four states experienced larger increases.

On Friday morning, as the Spade suicide and the CDC report were both generating coverage, news arrived of Anthony Bourdain’s tragic suicide in France at the age of 61. Bourdain was a prodigious talent who entertained and educated millions through his travel and culinary programs on the small screen. Like Spade, Bourdain will be sorely missed by millions around the world.

While Spade and Bourdain’s suicides were the most high-profile, national averages would indicate that another 859 Americans committed suicide last week – one every 12 minutes.

Some who offer public comment will stress the importance of understanding the root cause of suicides when diagnosed depression is involved: Are they primarily driven by pathology – in this case, perhaps, the unfathomably complex chemical interactions occurring within our brain; or by human behavior?

Before his own 2008 suicide, chronically depressed novelist David Foster Wallace riffed on the forces at play when a suicide occurs, stating in part: “The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.” While morbid, Wallace’s view is compelling.

Debating this issue is only one piece of the puzzle, however. Since it is understood that many suicides result from depression, and that suicides frequently follow prior known instances of self-harm, these appear to be two integral factors in any concentrated effort to prevent future occurrences.

A bipartisan, apolitical task force should start looking more deeply into ways in which our country can better support those who are suffering from depression. In January, President Trump issued an executive order directing the VA, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to collaborate to provide access to mental health care and suicide prevention resources for Veterans, particularly during the first year after separation from service.

This will assist one important segment of our population in battling the ill effects of depression, but the rest of the country needs assistance as well. Voids in health insurance policies continue to prevent people from obtaining the specific mental health treatment they need.

This task force should also attempt to track in painstaking detail the subsequent course of patients who treat at an ER or physician’s office for self-injury. What type of follow-up treatment do they obtain, and how many of them ultimately injure themselves again – perhaps fatally? For those who committed suicide following a prior reported instance of self-injury, how many were prevented from obtaining needed treatment due to voids in coverage or lack of insurance?

This problem should not exist in America. It deserves the country’s resources and the best efforts of our elected leaders. There is reason to believe in our ability to make real and tangible progress in the arena of suicide prevention, and now that the harsh realities are out on the table, there is no excuse for waiting.

Blake Shuart is a Wichita attorney.