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Surgeon General Releases Suicide-Prevention Strategy


WebMD Health News

May 2, 2001 (Washington) - The U.S. Surgeon General on Wednesday unveiled a national strategy to prevent suicides, to the delight of some healthcare experts.

"The report is a milestone," Lanny Berman, PhD, tells WebMD. "There have been attempts to publish 'best practices' in various facets of suicide prevention, but this really is equivalent to a declaration of war. ... It's a statement that this is a significant public health problem that is going to require a very complex response to save lives." Berman is the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.

The recommendations were developed by a coalition of government and private groups and took several years to develop. They call on schools, the media, primary healthcare professionals, state and federal government, and even gun and automobile manufacturers to do their part to help lower annual suicide rates.

Federal data show that firearms are by far the most common suicide method, with more than half of deaths occurring through guns.

Accordingly, the Surgeon General's strategy calls on doctors and health officials to routinely ask patients and families about the presence of guns in the home. Doctors should also recommend safety steps such that individuals should keep guns and ammunition locked separately, and inquire and educate about lethal drugs and poisons in the home.

The strategy also recommends the development of 'safer' or 'smarter' firearms, such as guns that can be fired only by their owner, and a new generation of cars that would hinder suicide attempts by intentional carbon monoxide poisoning.

Suicide is the nation's No. 8 cause of death. And there are more suicides annually than homicides. Take the number of annual suicides and average them out evenly throughout the year, and the statistic breaks down to someone taking his or her life every 17 minutes. Another 650,000 Americans receive emergency care each year after unsuccessful suicide attempts.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicides among young people nationwide have increased dramatically. It is the third leading cause of death for 15-to-24-year-olds.

But the highest suicide rate occurs among senior citizens, who represent 13% of the population but account for 19% of suicide deaths.

Praise for the report came from a variety of other mental health groups, ranging from the National Association for the Mentally Ill to the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network to the American Psychiatric Association.

"The old strategy of just setting up suicide prevention centers really was not terribly helpful," Darrel Regier, MD, tells WebMD. He adds the release today is "a more broad-based mental health screening and treatment approach, focusing particularly on depression, that is a much more responsible approach." Regier is the director of research at the American Psychiatric Association.

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