How Health Communications Can Help Prevent Suicide

By Christina Zurla, SVP, Federal Government Practice

On the heels of the US Surgeon General’s advisory about the worsening state of youth mental health and CDC’s latest release of the 2020 provisional numbers and rates of suicide, Dr. John Draper, Executive Director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, spoke with JPA’s Christina Zurla about emerging issues in suicide prevention and how health communications can make an impact.

How has the pandemic impacted the conversation around suicide prevention?

John: Talking about suicide prevention is more important now than ever. When COVID first hit, there was a sense that we were going through a shared pandemic experience.  But as things open back up, everyone will adjust differently. Some people will embrace it, while others may feel socially anxious or struggle due to grief, a job loss, or loss of contact with family or friends. During COVID, many people lost a sense of connection and community, which can lead to feelings that are associated with suicidality. Especially at this moment in the pandemic as we are rejoining activities and engagements at different speeds, we need to think about protecting people who feel despair or a lack of belonging.

Christina: Suicide rates have been rising for the past twenty years and in every state in the U.S.  The pandemic was a reminder of the critical importance of focusing attention on suicide prevention. The pandemic also reinforced just how integral mental health is to overall health. As public health communicators, it is our responsibility to make sure we are considering mental health as part of overall health campaigns, because it is a key factor for a person’s readiness to take up a health message or change behavior.

During the pandemic, connection shifted almost entirely to virtual communications, with many turning to social media.  How did that impact mental health?

John: Virtual connections are not the same as face-to-face encounters, and social media is not a substitute for connection. Particularly for young people, social connection with peers is critical to developing a sense of belonging and identity (“Who am I?” and “Who am I in relation to others?”). On social media, people say things they wouldn’t say in person and empathy can either be compromised or lost in translation. It’s also a comparison trap, insofar as what people post online are often their best moments and images, not the fuller experience of their lives; comparing one’s own life to a series of “perfect images” of others has been shown to reinforce symptoms of depression and anxiety, particularly in teenage girls. The pandemic disrupted connection and we need to focus now on fostering community and a sense of belonging and support, offline.

Christina: Social media use is at an all-time high, with more than 70% of the public using at least one social media platform. Part of our job is to “meet people where they are” when delivering health messages; and social media will no doubt continue to be at the forefront of our dissemination strategies.  That means harnessing the reach of social platforms but going a step further to find deeper connections with our audiences, such as by partnering with influencers they trust, sharing personal stories, and working with community-based organizations to offer on-the-ground and in-person support and follow-up about a specific health issue or topic.

What are some proven approaches for communicators to use when addressing suicide prevention and other mental health topics?

John: The best thing we can do is share stories about people who have overcome despair and suicidal thoughts. Not stories about suicide methods, but stories that can connect with someone while also showing a path through crisis. Research has shown that when people are exposed to stories of people who have found help, hope and/or healing through moments of suicidal despair, suicide rates decline in these exposed populations. We should also tell stories about navigating the challenges of finding help and share messages that are caring and promote acceptance. Those types of messages make a positive difference and can help reduce the stigma.

Christina: It’s also for communications efforts to acknowledge what people are experiencing, provide resources, and include loved ones as part of the process. For the Physicians Foundation, JPA developed Vital Signs to raise awareness about and prevent suicide among physicians. On National Physician Suicide Awareness Day this year, we expanded Vital Signs by creating, serving as an online reminder and call to action for physicians, their loved ones, and their colleagues to learn the signs, start conversations, and share resources that can help those in distress seek mental health care. Within one month of the launch of alone, we reached 83.2 million people and encouraged 26,000 positive actions to be taken online and in communities.

Are there things that every person can do to prevent suicide?

John: Suicide is preventable. People everywhere can take action to prevent suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides free confidential support for people in distress as well as prevention and crisis resources for loved ones. And in July of 2022, a national three-digit number (988) will be enabled so anyone anywhere in the U.S. and territories can quickly access help for themselves or a loved one, when in mental health or suicidal crisis. Also, our #BeThe1To campaign focuses on five steps for supporting a friend, colleague or loved one who may be suicidal. One of the most important steps is to be present; to listen and to let the person know that you care about them and that they’re not alone.

Christina: Also, check out other organizations that offer suicide prevention resources tailored to specific audiences, such as, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center the American Foundation of Suicide PreventionSuicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), The Trevor Project, and the Veterans Crisis Line.

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