If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or to text “Talk” to 741741. The Lifeline provides 24/7 free, confidential support and resources.
Early in my career, I treated a young man who was newly diagnosed with schizophrenia. Let’s call him Daniel. When I first met Daniel, his symptoms were managed by medication and he was in relatively stable condition. But I knew the diagnosis – and all that came along with it – weighed heavily on him. There was a psychiatric hospital in his village, and as a boy he would sometimes see the patients, staring vacantly out bus windows when they went for outings. (Anti-psychotics had strong side effects back then.) He and his friends would laugh at the patients. Now, he was one of “those" people – mentally ill, different, someone to be mocked. The last time I saw him we had an uneventful check-up. But soon after that meeting, he ended his life.
Decades later, I wonder what his outcome would be if he were diagnosed today. We have made powerful strides in the treatment of psychiatric disorders and have medications that can manage symptoms more effectively and with fewer side effects than in Daniel’s time. But there is no pill that can prevent suicide. There remains significant stigma around mental illness and suicide rates are going up and up. Today, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds1.
As someone who has spent my entire career working to support people with mental health disorders, I know there is no easy solution to address this health crisis, just as there was no simple explanation for Daniel’s death. Suicidal behavior is complex, and it is rare that a single factor leads someone to attempt suicide. More typically, several risk factors act cumulatively to increase a person’s vulnerability to suicidal behavior.
We do, however, know that reducing barriers to treatment, and increasing family and community support (connectedness) can help protect against suicide2. On World Suicide Prevention Day, we call attention to the concrete steps we can take – both as an organization and as individuals – to boost those protective factors and help prevent suicide.
First, if we want to get serious about preventing suicide, we need to get serious about promoting mental health.
That seems simplistic, but the reality is that we won’t make a dent in suicide rates by focusing solely on those who have suicidal ideation – just as we didn’t lower deaths from heart disease by concentrating only on people with advanced cardiovascular disease. We need to raise public awareness of mental illness risk factors and warning signs. And we need to make it both easy and socially acceptable to seek treatment. A history of mental disorders is a risk factor for suicide, but only about half of people with a diagnosable mental health condition receive mental health treatment3. Often, stigma is the barrier that prevents people from seeking mental healthcare.
At Lundbeck, we collaborate with the mental health advocacy community because we understand that these organizations play a critical role in raising awareness and fighting stigma. We are proud to partner with organizations like NAMI, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention and Mental Health America on a variety of national and community-based programs and advocacy events. Whether we’re joining forces to shape the narrative around mental health or lacing up our shoes for awareness walks in our own communities, our collaboration provides opportunities for us all to become mental health advocates.
Let’s make mental health “talkable” for everyone.
According to the CDC, about half of people who die of suicide in the United States do not have a known mental health disorder4. Work, money and relationship stress can all increase a person’s risk for suicidal thoughts. We need to make stressors like these “talkable” so that people who experience an emotional health crisis – whatever the cause and no matter the duration – feel comfortable reaching out for help.
One way we can do this is by speaking openly and honestly about our mental health and the stress in our own lives. Here at Lundbeck, we are planning for our second-annual Not Myself Today event. This is a stigma-busting campaign that encourages people to share their feelings by wearing mood pins. The pins bear one-word emotions, such as “content”, “sad” or “anxious”. They are a mechanism for people to initiate conversations about emotional health and a way to build connectedness in our workplace. This connectedness is critical to fighting suicide; sometimes, just knowing there is someone to listen and someone who cares can help a person in crisis.
We need to focus on hope and the possibility of recovery.
The future Daniel foresaw was very different from the reality that people with mental illness experience today. Many mental health disorders can be managed effectively with behavioral therapy and medication and there is tangible hope for recovery.
But there is more work to be done. We don’t yet know what causes mental health disorders like schizophrenia, and research shows that more than half of people living with major depression disorder experience symptoms despite treatment5. We persist in psychiatric research and the pursuit of new mental health treatments because we believe all people deserve the chance to be their best. Our researchers are investigating schizophrenia biomarkers and working to uncover the underlying illness pathology that drives mental health symptoms. This could help us develop entirely new kinds of treatments, like highly targeted medicines that treat specific mental health symptoms.
We believe that breakthroughs are within reach, and through development of innovative treatments, a commitment to mental health advocacy, and day-in-day-out efforts to fight stigma and build connectedness, we can help prevent suicide. Are you with us?
1. WHO, “Suicide Data.” Last accessed 8/20/19
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Risk Factors for Suicide.” Last accessed 8/20/19.
3. National Institute of Mental Health, “Mental Illness.” Last accessed 8/20/19
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Suicide rising across the US.” Last accessed 8/20/19.
5. “Living with MDD Survey.” Conducted conducted online by Harris Poll on behalf of Otsuka America Pharmaceutical, Inc. and Lundbeck between April 21 and May 1, 2015, among 300 U.S. adults ages 18+ who self-report that they have been diagnosed with MDD by a healthcare professional (“adults with MDD”); 150 U.S. psychiatrists who treat adults ages 18+ with MDD (“psychiatrists”); and 152 U.S. primary care providers who treat adults ages 18+ with MDD (“primary care providers”).