Opinion Piece: 5 Ways to Stop Deaths of Despair

Contributed by: Matthew Boyle

The world can feel like an overwhelming place. Without delving too deep into politics, let’s just say that sometimes it can seem like the amount of good in the world is at a disproportionate size to the amount of bad.

In the United States alone, we’re seeing a confluence of signs that point to a growing feeling of despair across the nation. Shocking statistics from the CDC reveal that the national suicide rate has been increasing over the last decade, jumping more than 25% from 1999 to 2016.

We also know that admissions for both mental health and substance abuse issues have been increasing in the last decade as well. In fact, deaths of despair, i.e. suicide, drug overdose, or alcohol related fatalities, have been steadily growing in our country, and could play a possible role in why life expectancy has dropped two years in a row. (The only other time we’ve seen this was from 1916 to 1918 when the U.S. was facing the worst flu pandemic in its history).

It’s time to drop pretenses and deal with this crisis for what it is: a public health emergency. Here are some concrete steps I believe we can take to reduce these deaths of despair:

1.  Better Screening for Mental Health

Screening for substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and other mental health indicators is a critical step that healthcare systems and businesses can implement to begin saving lives. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a specific outline known as the SBIRT method (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment) that has been linked to lower healthcare costs, lower rates of drug and alcohol misuse, and reduced risk of trauma.

Schools, businesses, and healthcare organizations can use this tool to help identify individuals at risk for suicide or developing a substance abuse disorder. The program includes outlines for addressing alcohol abuse, illicit drug abuse, tobacco use, depression, trauma, and anxiety. If we had a simple program like SBIRT that was universally accepted and implemented by institutions, we would have a way to identify and treat behavioral health issues before they turned deadly.

2. Reducing Access to Lethal Means

Firearms are the most commonly used method for suicide, accounting for nearly 60% of all suicides. The second most common, at least for women, is self-poisoning or intentional drug overdose. A proven method for reducing access to both firearms and unused medication is the Counseling on Access to Lethal Means (CALM) approach. One study in Colorado on this intervention method found that parents of children being treated for suicide risk made significant changes in their behavior surrounding safe storage after undergoing the program, increasing their lock up rates for medication and firearms by more than 70%.

Gun ownership and prescription medication should have mandated instructions on this approach. Much in the same way that we don’t trust teenagers to drive until they have passed a test, citizens and doctors should need to pass a test before being allowed to own a firearm and prescribe a potentially addictive medication, respectively. A large amount of prescription medication winds up being given or sold to family members and friends, so more pharmaceutical retailers such as Walmart and CVS should implement prescription disposal means to help reduce the harm of having too many prescription drugs lying around.

3. Increasing Access to Behavioral Health Providers

There is simply not enough access to behavioral health providers in the United States. According to SAMHSA, 55% of U.S. counties do not have any practicing behavioral health workers and 77% report that they have unmet behavioral health needs. Healthcare networks should address these shortages by offering incentives to students interested in this career path and making plans to create more facilities that can adequately meet the needs of the surrounding communities.

4. Spreading Knowledge About the Warning Signs of Suicide

Organizations should help remove the stigma surrounding public acknowledgement of suicide. If we can increase the amount of people who are able to recognize the warning signs of suicide, we can hopefully increase the amount of people able to recognize and intercede on behalf of friends or family considering suicide. The warnings signs of suicide are:

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself;
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself;
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose;
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain;
  • Talking about being a burden to others;
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs;
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless;
  • Sleeping too little or too much;
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated;
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge; and
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

5. Spreading Love

It may sound corny. It may sound impossible given the way the world is. But the truth is we need love more than ever. Take this quote from the Dalai Lama. He was asked about the growing problem of loneliness and isolation in first world countries, and this was his response:

“The problem is not a lack of material riches. It is the growing number of people who feel they are no longer useful, no longer needed, no longer one with their societies….If you wish to stop feelings of isolation and loneliness, I think that your underlying attitude makes a tremendous difference. And approaching others with the thought of compassion in your mind is the best way to do this.” – Dalai Lama

The cure for despair is to spread hope through compassion and love. When someone feels loved it can give them a sense of purpose and wellbeing. As social creatures, we are simply designed to function healthier and happier when we have a vibrant social network of relationships.

Bio: Matthew Boyle is the Chief Operating Officer of Landmark Recovery, a growing chain of addiction treatment centers in the United States, including alcohol rehab in Oklahoma City. Matthew graduated from Duke University in 2011 Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree and has worked in the healthcare industry ever since, creating a holistic treatment model that supports patients in the pursuit of achieving lifelong sobriety.