New National Strategy Aims to Transform Attitudes, End Suicides

By Tucker, Charlotte | The Nation's Health, November-December 2012 | Go to article overview

New National Strategy Aims to Transform Attitudes, End Suicides


Tucker, Charlotte, The Nation's Health


KEVIN Graham was living in a world of nothing but possibilities.

An ROTC cadet training to be an Army doctor, he had a close, loving family and a bright future, according to his father, retired Maj. Gen. Mark Graham.

But Kevin Graham was also depressed, and no one knew the depths of that sadness. He saw doctors, and called his mom once to ask, "Did you know depression is an illness and not just a sad feeling?"

He also told her that he felt like his brain just did not work any more.

"We knew he was struggling, but we didn't know the warning signs," Mark Graham said during a September conference call with reporters.

And then one day in 2003, the family got the call. Kevin had killed himself.

"The world as we knew it ended in one call," Graham said.

Kevin Graham was one of more than 31,000 people who took their own lives in 2003. That year's suicide rate of 10.8 people per 100,000 is consistent with a longstanding, stubborn pattern. Every year, more than 36,000 people in the United States commit suicide--more than 100 per day--and for every person who dies, more than 30 people make an attempt. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

In an attempt to bring the rate down, the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a group created by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, released a new national strategy for suicide prevention on Sept. 10.

"We know these are preventable deaths," Sebelius said at a Sept. 10, Washington, D.C., event to unveil the strategy and talk about the path forward.

The 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention has 13 goals and 60 objectives for reducing suicide over the next 10 years.

Goals include integrating and coordinating suicide prevention activities across multiple sectors and settings--including workplaces, schools, health provider offices and faith-based organizations--and developing effective programs that promote wellness and prevent suicide.

Broadly, the strategy seeks changes in the ways Americans think about and address suicide.

The Action Alliance highlighted four priorities to reduce the number of suicides: integrating suicide prevention into health care policies, encouraging change in health care systems with a goal of preventing suicide, changing the way the public talks about suicide and suicide prevention, and improving the quality of data on suicidal behaviors.

As part of the strategy Sebelius announced $55.6 million in new grants for national, state, tribal, campus and community suicide prevention programs. The grants are available under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, named for former Sen. Gordon Smith's son, who committed suicide in 2003, and are funded in part by the Affordable Care Act's Prevention and Public Health Fund.

Gordon Smith, who co-chairs the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, said the new strategy has the potential to save 20,000 lives in the next five years.

"This is something we can do something about," he said. "The worth of souls is great, and I ask people to join us in this. It is the work of angels."

The Affordable Care Act also has a role to play in suicide prevention. The health reform law will extend insurance options to many of the 6 million to 10 million people who are believed to have untreated mental health disorders, including depression. It also forbids insurance companies from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Those conditions have, in the past, made it difficult for those with mental health disorders to find and keep coverage, said Pamela Hyde, JD, administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. …

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