This likely is not the first article you’ve read about suicide since designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain died by suicide last week. And I’m certainly not the first to focus on suicide as a public health crisis that urgently needs our attention. But as a leader of a company dedicated to helping people living with psychiatric disorders, I feel a responsibility to speak out.
At Lundbeck, we are committed to finding ways to reduce the risk for suicide. To be sure, this is a complex problem with no single, easy solution; but the tens of thousands of people who face the darkness and isolation of suicidal thoughts deserve our best effort.
Fight, talk, ask: How words can combat suicide
We know that conditions like depression and bipolar disorder, especially when unaddressed, increase risk for suicide. We also know that only about half of people with a diagnosable mental health condition receive mental health treatment, and the average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is 8 to 10 years. For some of these people, the stigma of mental illness keeps them from seeking treatment.
We can each do our part to fight stigma by speaking openly and honestly about mental health. We can increase awareness and fight stigma in our communities and workplaces by challenging misconceptions. And we can watch our own words, use respectful language and avoid labels like “crazy” or “psycho.”
At Lundbeck, we recently completed a stigma-busting campaign called Not Myself Today. The overall goal of Not Myself Today is to build a mentally healthy workplace, and to change the way we think about, act towards and support mental health. Throughout the initiative, we literally wore our moods on our sleeves: Bowls of mood pins were placed throughout the office, and employees were encouraged to wear a pin that reflected their current mood and talk with co-workers about why they chose that pin.
Many employees told me they appreciated the inquiries about their mood, as well as the support they received from co-workers. During the campaign, I had deeper conversations with the team than I probably ever have. With the pin as a bold, yet safe conversation-starter, people told me openly that they felt “meh,” or “anxious,” “sad,” “awesome,” or just “not myself today.” It was freeing for people to share these feelings and unmask how they were really doing.
Of course, people experiencing serious mental illness need more than a mood pin. But being supportive and demonstrating you care about the mental health of a loved one or co-worker can a play a part in preventing suicide. In fact, if you think someone is at risk for suicide, don’t shy away from the topic. Mental health experts say you should be straightforward and simply ask: “Are you considering suicide?” And then direct them to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or to text “Talk” to 741741. The operators there save lives every single day.
Genetics and novel approaches
Beyond supportive workplaces and crisis support, we need to ensure that people with mental health issues have access to effective treatments. As a biopharmaceutical company with a 70-year history in groundbreaking psychiatric research, we are committed to pursuing innovative therapies for psychiatric disorders. For while today’s treatments have led to improved quality of life for millions, research shows that more than half of people with major depressive disorder (MDD) experience symptoms despite treatment.
To develop better treatments, we are constantly seeking new knowledge about the underlying biology of the disease. That’s why we are collaborating with the genetics company 23andMe and think tank the Milken Institute on groundbreaking research examining the link between genetics and brain disorders. Through this study, 25,000 participants (15,000 with MDD, 10,000 with bipolar depression) will have their DNA tested and complete cognitive tests and surveys. The study will hopefully provide data to help us better understand how genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors interact and influence disease in different people.
At Lundbeck, we take our responsibility to patients very seriously, and we are unwavering in our commitment to people living with brain disorders. We believe we have an important role to play in creating a world without stigma, a world where people can better access the medicines they need and a world without suicide.
While we continue to advance new approaches to treating diseases that put people at risk for suicide, my hope is that the current focus on suicide prompts more open dialogue about mental health and suicide prevention, and that the issue stays forefront in people’s minds so that –together – we can make headway in our fight against this devastating health crisis.