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Surgeon General Releases Suicide-Prevention Strategy

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The new strategy's first goal, however, is to promote general public awareness that suicide is preventable. "We must remove the stigma of mental health and suicide," Surgeon General David Satcher, MD, said Wednesday.

Berman says, "One of the biggest misconceptions is that 'suicidal people want to die, so why bother?' Death by suicide does not need to be the way to solve the issues that are bothering someone."

The national plan would also increase suicide risk identification and prevention training for nurses, physician assistants, social workers, clergy, family and criminal defense attorneys, corrections workers, and high school teachers.

And doctors need to be better trained in suicide risk detection. According to the Surgeon General's office, among seniors who commit suicide, 75% had visited their physician in the month prior to their death.

"We know that the professional community is poorly trained in dealing with suicidal patients," Berman tells WebMD. "Training is crucial, or we may increase adolescents referring their peers for services, only then to have them get ineffective treatment."

The strategy calls on the media to portray staged suicides in their shows and films more accurately and responsibly, and to report actual suicides with less sensationalism. Suicide experts say that media exposure has led to "copycat" suicides.

The ambitious report would also include depression and suicide risk screening as a quality performance measure for health plans that are seeking national accreditation.

It calls on states, employers, schools, and other community organizations to set up "evidence-based" suicide prevention programs.

But Regier notes that it is challenging to determine what is effective "evidence-based" prevention. "It takes very large population groups to demonstrate whether or not you've done something positive in preventing suicide," he tells WebMD.

"Some high school educational programs have not been productive. They were focused just on suicide and basically became educational programs to tell people ways of committing suicide."

Instead, he says, "Programs should be focusing on if you have depression, and you're withdrawn from your family and friends, if your schoolwork is going down, if you're having constant suicidal thinking, if you're having appetite changes, sleep changes, then you really need to get some help.

"It takes a comprehensive strategy to deal with a condition like suicide," Regier says. "It will be difficult to focus on one specific part of this strategy."

But Berman says, "If we can accomplish just a few of these goals, we are going to see a dramatic shift."

That may not be easy. "If we had $100 million to put behind the strategy tomorrow, where would be the first place you would spend it?" Berman asks. "I don't think that we would be in consensus on how to do that.

"Somebody's got to generate dollars to support this. I don't think that's just the feds that have to ante up."

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