Nearly 45,000 Americans die by suicide each year — an increase of nearly 25 percent since 1999. No wonder the Center for Disease Control and Prevention calls it a public health crisis. The problem is even worse in Kansas: up 45 percent in the same time frame. The issue is in today’s headlines due to recent celebrity deaths, including fashion designer Kate Spade, who was from Kansas City.
A recent op-ed by Wichita attorney Blake Shuart exemplifies the traditional approach: suggesting outreach to those at risk, along with increased attention to depression screening and treatment. Others remind readers of the 24-hour suicide prevention hotline: 1-800-273-8255. These are all good, but defining suicide in terms of public health offers still more. Social science shows us that many suicides are preventable, and the means are within reach.
Recent research reminds us just how susceptible we humans are to our environments. We readily, unconsciously adapt our behavior to even the smallest change. This is why nutritionists now eschew dieting, instead recommending environmental changes like shrinking the size of dinner plates, putting food in smaller packages, and not keeping junk food on the counter. Urban planners build narrower roads through neighborhoods, incorporating traffic circles and on-street parking. Drivers respond with slower speeds, perhaps without even realizing it. We political scientists embrace same-day voter registration and voting by mail to boost turnout.
It is time we use these insights to prevent suicides. Small environmental changes can bring big results.
Consider Great Britain’s 1998 law requiring that the pain reliever acetaminophen be packaged in individual blister packs, also limiting the number of tablets per box. Only one box per store can be purchased at a time, but there is no limit on how many can be purchased by going from store to store. Researchers estimate that this small change has saved more than 700 Britons from suicide. Accidental poisoning deaths from acetaminophen have also fallen there.
Critics assert that suicide victims are so depressed, so determined, they will find another way. Here is good news: this is usually not true. A 2010 study by three suicide-prevention experts studied participants who were deterred from completing suicide attempts. Of those receiving no follow-up treatment, 78 percent did not re-attempt suicide during the study. For those receiving treatment, the numbers were even better — 83 percent did not re-attempt during this time. Prevention expert Jill Harkavy-Friedman told the Washington Post, “In a suicidal crisis, it’s all about time.” She added, “If they get to the bridge and there is a barrier, they’re not going to shift gears.”
What about Kansas? Here, suicides are most commonly committed with guns: four gun-related suicides for each gun-related homicide in the state. Four-fifths of Kansas suicide victims are male. Veterans and blue-collar workers are particularly high risk.
This is not the time to argue about guns. Gun-control advocates need to accept guns as a fact of life in Kansas, while gun-rights supporters must acknowledge the need for proper storage and securing of firearms and ammunition. Measures need not be onerous. Simply slowing down a suicide attempt — putting barriers in the way — can stop a tragedy. It is time to apply this knowledge, and save lives.
Michael A. Smith is a professor of political science at Emporia State University.