Silence can be deadly when it comes to suicide. “We have to encourage responsible conversation about suicide,” says Jerry Reed. “Everyone plays a role, including family members who know a loved one who is struggling.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Reed earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland and a doctorate in health-related sciences from Virginia Commonwealth University. He spent 15 years as a civil servant in the Department of the Army, then became a congressional fellow in 1997. That’s where his life and career changed course.
“I worked for Sen. Harry Reid as a legislative assistant. It was in that role, at a hearing on mental health and the elderly, that I learned that a major mental health issue facing seniors in the State of Nevada was suicide,” says Reed. “I was flabbergasted. And when the senator shared that his own dad died by suicide and offered to lead on this issue, I started thinking about advocacy and what we might do as a nation to address this public health problem.”
Reed left the Hill to run the Suicide Prevention Action Network (SPAN USA). He joined EDC in 2008. “EDC is in a unique place to promote a conversation about suicide on a national level,” he says. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity to help spread the word with the goal of saving lives.”
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) at EDC collaborates with other organizations to develop tools and training programs for practitioners and community advocates. SPRC also serves as a clearing-house for information and resources based on best practices. Jerry Reed is its director.
What’s the biggest misconception about suicide?
The biggest misconception is we can’t do anything about it. Suicide is preventable. We know of interventions with communities and with high-risk groups that reduce the risk of suicide in the group. Also, at the individual level, we know how to identify someone who is struggling with a mental health concern early on—and if we can get past the barriers of stigma and lack of resources, and we can get them into effective treatment—we can make a difference.
How big a problem is suicide?
We lose about 33,000 people a year to suicide. That’s about 90 people dying every day in this country due to suicide, or one person every 16 minutes. That’s more people dying by suicide than by homicide and HIV/AIDS combined.
Who is most vulnerable?
Of the 33,000 who die by suicide, about 5,000 are young people under age 25, about 5,000 are older adults over age 65, and about 23,000 are between ages 25 and 64. About four-fifths are males. Some within those groups are disproportionately touched. Native Americans under age 45 have a high rate of suicide, and senior white males over age 85 have the highest suicide rate of any age group. And veterans have about twice the suicide rate as non-veteran—about one in five suicides is a veteran.
So suicide presents a tremendous public health challenge because even though it cuts across demographics, often it’s not visible. Conversely, there’s an opportunity for us to do something about it.
When did the United States begin seeing suicide as a public health issue?
A major shift in the national response came in 1997 when the Senate and House of Representatives passed resolutions addressing suicide as a public health problem. I happened to work on the Hill when those resolutions were introduced after Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the current majority leader, shared the story of his own personal loss of his dad to suicide many years ago. That really generated a lot of conversation.
So these resolutions passed, and Dr. David Satcher agreed in his confirmation as U.S. Surgeon General to put mental health and suicide prevention on the national agenda. Policymakers, survivors, and advocates came together, and the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention was passed in 2001. It laid out a blueprint for the nation’s goals and objectives, and that’s what guides our work.
What are some new developments in suicide prevention initiatives?
We’re offering a toolkit for primary care providers that teaches them to ask the right questions to determine if a patient is suffering from depression or has suicidal thoughts. We have developed new Web resources for college campuses. We have also created resources for Native Americans, and we will continue to work with schools and Veterans Administration centers and to train mental health practitioners on how to assess and manage suicide risk.
What are your plans for the future?
I want to work on building partnerships with people who might not think they play a significant role in preventing suicide: law enforcement, emergency first responders, and funeral directors. Their voices can be part of the solution. No one agency or nonprofit can do this by themselves. It’s going to take a community to make a difference. That’s how we’re going to prevent suicide in America.
SPRC operates in partnership with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
Originally published on October 27, 2009