Asking someone how they’re doing is a better approach than not asking anything. Meaningful connection is a critical component in suicide prevention. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

While suicide continues to be a persistent and serious public health concern, there has been cause for hope in recent years: Suicide rates declined slightly in 2019 and 2020.

New treatments and interventions are showing promise, too, creating optimism in a field that once seemed bleak.

As researchers continue to look for innovations, they’re studying new opportunities, including better screening methods, faster response tactics and novel data collection methods through wearable technology.

When people can access the mental health resources they need, it can ultimately help them heal and find new hope.

But it all hinges on getting people the help they need, said Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, a pediatric psychologist at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“We can all play a bigger part, being attentive to changes in our children, the adolescents in our lives, family members and coworkers,” she said. “Simply asking people if they’re OK is a great place to start.”

It’s essential to know the warning signs.

Not everyone will directly express that they are having thoughts of suicide, she said.

“They may just talk about death and dying or have a greater sense of hopelessness,” Dr. Cadieux said. “Sometimes they mention being a burden.”

Examples of other possible signs include arranging to have a pet cared for, or making arrangements to get rid of certain belongings.

One of the significant hurdles: overcoming shame or stigmas that may sometimes be associated with seeking mental health treatment. It’s critical for people to feel they can connect with a primary care or behavioral health provider for help.

“There are supports, including primary care and behavioral health providers,” Dr. Cadieux said. “If someone is having even passing thoughts, we want to stop them from becoming more frequent and intense thoughts.”

New tools

For decades, suicide rates had been getting worse. The rate increased 30% from 2000 to 2018, but then declined slightly in 2019 and 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data from 2021 has yet to be published.

As one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., suicide remains an urgent concern. Nearly 46,000 people died from suicide in 2020. That translates to one death every 11 minutes.

Researchers, health care providers and schools continue to advance new tools to promote treatment and awareness.

Spectrum Health, for example, has developed the innovative Blue Envelope program, training thousands of team members to rapidly respond to a patient who may be having thoughts of suicide.

The program has been so effective, it was widely adapted as a separate program for schools, now in use throughout Western Michigan.

The training instructs people to keep the patient or student SAFE by:

  • Staying with the individual
  • Accessing help
  • Validating their feelings
  • Eliminating lethal risks

Help is available

Researchers are exploring other approaches, too. While some of these ideas are being studied for impact on specific risk groups, many show promise for larger populations.

New national helpline

Earlier this year, the U.S. government introduced 988, a three-digit crisis line. Whereas 911 connects callers to emergency services, 988 quickly puts people in distress in touch with local mental health support.

Sharper screenings

Another valuable tool is screening, often performed by providers in various clinical settings.

“These help, whether you came in because you are having headaches or you’re feeling depressed,” Dr. Cadieux said. “Depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts can happen to anyone at any point. We want to connect patients (to) support as soon as possible.”

Tapping into tech

Smartphones and wearable devices may help, too. In one study, researchers monitored wearable use among adolescents, tracking heart rate, step count and other metrics three times a day, according to the American Psychological Association.

This kind of information may help monitor a patient’s mood by tracking any deviations from their baseline measurements, indicating a possible increased level of risk for suicide.

Evolving treatment

Therapy continues to be a critical tool to help patients who may struggle with mental health. And identifying the best therapy for the patient is essential.

An American Journal of Psychiatry study found that brief treatment—12 sessions of cognitive behavioral therapy—helped reduce suicidal risk in veterans by 60%.

Making connections

After early signs of promise, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is engaged in a large-scale test of Caring Letters to better treat veterans.

After a veteran is released from the hospital, their providers send a number of personal notes of support, showing an interest in their well-being. These notes also include a reminder that help is available if they need it, and it provides information about nearby resources.

The ability to connect with others is important for everyone. “Having a connection with someone who will listen and be there is so important in supporting someone who is having suicidal thoughts,” Dr. Cadieux said.

Expanding support options

Beyond connecting with care providers for help, it’s also important for people to tap into growing support networks, Dr. Cadieux said.

There are groups designed to help those who are struggling with depression, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There are also groups that can provide support to concerned family members.

Michigan also offers resources county by county, and it operates OK2SAY, a service that focuses on student safety.

Spectrum Health offers in-person and virtual appointments for mental and behavioral health treatment.

‘Being there for each other’

Every year, millions of people struggle with suicidal thoughts. Certain groups are at much higher risk, including Native Americans, Alaska Natives and non-Hispanic white populations.

Veterans and people who live in rural areas are also at higher risk, as are elderly people, as well as young people who identify as LGBTQ.

Certain professions, including first responders and those in the mining and construction industries, are also at higher risk.

Many health problems can elevate risk, too, including chronic illness, alcoholism and addiction.

And each pocket of risk reveals just how complex and widespread the problem is.

“Any person in any walk of life—any job, any age, any socioeconomic status—may have suicidal thoughts at some point,” Dr. Cadieux said. “This isn’t a veterans’ problem or a problem for adolescents.

“It’s an everybody problem. And we can all play a role in helping and being there for each other.”