"Cowardly." "A heathen." "Selfish."
Those are the words some used to describe Robin Williams after he tragically took his own life this past August.
These insults demonstrate that even after millions of dollars spent by the federal government on anti-stigma and public awareness campaigns, there remains significant ignorance and misunderstanding about the causes of suicide.
With September being National Suicide Prevention Month, there exists an opportunity to dispel common misconceptions. This Thursday, as Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, I will convene a hearing to focus the national conversation on combating this public health crisis, evaluating current federal efforts, and bringing to the forefront evidence-based practices to help those most at-risk of suicide.
First, let's dispel the myths.
Myth Number One: "Suicide is not that common."
This year, 9 million adults will have serious thoughts of suicide; 2.7 million will make suicide plans; 1.3 million will attempt suicide; and nearly 40,000 will die by suicide. One suicide occurs every 13 minutes, one veteran commits suicide every hour, and more will die by suicide this year than in car accidents.
Myth Number Two: "Those who die by suicide should have just pulled it together and carried on."
The vast majority of individuals who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. Mental illness is a contributing factor in 90 percent of suicides and the risk of suicide increases more than 50 percent in individuals experiencing depression. Mental illnesses can fundamentally change the pathways of the brain, making it difficult for those of us without this disease to comprehend what compels an individual to take his or her own life. Furthermore, some who die by suicide believe their disappearance eases the burden on their family.
Myth Number Three: "Suicide is well planned and a thoughtful act."
What many people still don't understand is the often impulsive nature of those experience suicidal thoughts. A common misconception is those who take their own lives spend a long time planning when in fact, 25 percent who attempt suicide do so within five minutes of their initial decision, and more than 70 percent do so within the first hour.
Although there is a lot we know about suicide, these myths continue to perpetuate because we don't understand enough about why certain populations are at higher risk, and what is happening in the brain at the time of suicide. In its 2013 report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that "additional research is needed to understand the cause of the increase... and why the extent of the increase varies."
Suicide is a public health crisis demanding a policy response that, to date, has been tepid at best. Public awareness campaigns have not only failed to eliminate stigma against those with mental illness, bur have also failed to reduce suicide rates amongst youth, or arrest the alarming increase in suicides amongst middle-aged and older adults.
Over the last decade, the rate suicide amongst young people has remained unchanged; suicide is the third leading cause of death amongst those age 15 to 24. Meanwhile, the rate of suicide for those ages 35 to 64 has increased an astonishing 28 percent and the act of suffocation or hanging increased fully 81 percent, according to the CDC.
The impulsive nature, and correlation with mental illness, requires us to treat suicide as a public health crisis and develop a better policy framework to get to those needing help long before their mental health crisis results in tragedy. To this end I have introduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 3717), which authorizes research at the National Institute of Mental Health to enhance our understanding of suicide and advance evidence-based approaches to prevention that are not solely centered around raising awareness. My legislation also reauthorizes the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act, which is the largest youth suicide prevention and early intervention program in the county. However, the program does not address the full scope of suicide, which can affect individuals of any age.
Families with loved ones battling a serious mental illness are well aware there is a problem. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those with serious mental illness are not aware that they have a problem. But, all of us should be painfully aware based on these statistics that our system is failing to deliver meaningful help when someone is in mental health crisis. If we saw any other disease in this county that had a number as high as those for suicide, we would call upon our civic institutions, the National Institute of Health and others to take action. We would certainly call upon Congress to act.
We can save lives and help families in mental health crisis but only if we, as a nation, have the courage to confront mental illness and address the suicide epidemic head on. We can no longer ignore it because too many lives are at stake.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R., Pa.), a psychologist, represents Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District and is the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.