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Vital Signs: Suicide prevention remains important in midst of mental health focus

Vital Signs: Suicide prevention remains important in midst of mental health focus

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In the past year or more, we’ve seen positive signs that the conversation around mental health is shifting; rather than suffer in silence, people are speaking out and seeking help. Among them are prominent figures like gymnast Simone Biles and tennis pro Naomi Osaka.

By candidly revealing their own struggles with anxiety and depression, these world-renowned athletes have helped draw attention to the importance of prioritizing mental health.

It’s still too early to know for certain, but eliminating the stigma around mental health disorders appears to be having a positive impact on suicide rates in the U.S. From 2000 to 2019, suicide rates were steadily climbing, rising 35% during that period. In the past two years, however, we’ve seen those numbers decline, particularly during the pandemic.

While these numbers are encouraging, we still have a lot of work to do. Even one death by suicide is too many to claim victory. That’s why it’s important to raise awareness about suicide prevention. Understanding who is at greatest risk, knowing the warning signs and knowing how to respond is something each of us can do to help provide our friends and loved ones the support they need when they need it most.

Risk factors for suicideSuicide does not discriminate. However, some people are at greater risk. Identifying them may help us respond sooner to warning signs. Studies have shown that, between 2010 and 2019, U.S. adults between the ages of 24 to 44 were at greatest risk, with men committing suicide four times more than women. Additional factors that increase the likelihood of suicide include:

Serious physical illness, including pain

A history of witnessing violence, suicidal behavior or suicide

Adverse childhood experiences, such as child abuse, neglect and sexual violence

A family history of psychiatric illness or suicide

A current psychiatric disorder (most commonly depression and anxiety)

Substance abuse

Access to lethal means, including firearms

Prolonged stress, including bullying, harassment and interpersonal conflicts with family, friends and/or a romantic partner

Warning signs, and

how to respondPeople who die by suicide often show warning signs prior to their deaths. Some behaviors to watch for include:

Talking or writing about suicide or dying

Verbalizing feelings of hopelessness

Being more withdrawn from others, more anxious or more impulsive

Giving away meaningful personal belongings

Increased substance use

Changed routines, including withdrawing from activities and changes in sleeping or eating patterns

Demonstrating extreme mood swings or other personality changes

These are just some of the common warning signs. If you suspect that a friend or loved one may be considering suicide, speak to him or her openly about their feelings and be an active listener.

There is no evidence to suggest that talking about suicide will increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt, so don’t be afraid to ask about suicidal thoughts and question the person specifically about whether he or she has a suicide plan. If the person is considering suicide, encourage him, her or them to work with you to limit their access to firearms, medications and other lethal means of suicide. Be supportive, check in frequently and connect the person with resources so that he, she or they can seek additional help if necessary.

Resources for suicide prevention

With increased access to telehealth or virtual medical appointments, as well as helplines available by phone or chat, there are now more resources than ever before for those who are having suicidal thoughts. Here are some recommended local and national services:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at (800) 273-8255 or, offers free, confidential support 24/7 via phone or chat, as well as a database of additional resources.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), at or (877)-SAMHSA-7 [(877) 726-4727], is a government agency that aims to improve behavioral health by connecting people with the tools and resources they need, including treatment for mental health disorders, crisis intervention and support.

Region Ten Community Services Board, at (434) 972-1800 or, is a local organization providing crisis services and a link to local mental health providers.

If your friend or loved one can meet promptly with a primary care provider or other physician, he or she can help connect the person with a variety of resources and get involved in monitoring care and mental health status. UVa Health offers comprehensive psychiatric care at UVa Psychiatric Medicine Northridge. To learn more, visit

To learn more about treatments available for depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders, visit

Amit Shahane is a licensed psychologist and director of the UVa Behavioral Center.

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