The University of UtahRedthread Home

Our Collective Responsibilities for Those Struggling with Suicidal Thoughts

Sad Teenage Girl

By David Derezotes, Professor, College of Social Work, University of Utah

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released research findings that Utah had the highest rate of serious thoughts of suicide (1 in 15 adults). We know that suicide is not unique to Utah – over 36,000 people die of suicide every year in the USA, many more make attempts, and suicide is a significant cause of death in every other country in the world. However, this finding should make us reflect on the factors associated with suicidal ideation and suicide prevention.

From the social work perspective, any thought or behavior is associated with many factors, including such “clinical/micro level” factors as emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental well-being and genetic history; and on such “mezzo/macro level” issues as family history, culture, community, and social identities. This is true of suicidal thinking and behavior as well. The so called “mezzo/macro level” issues tend to be less emphasized in our current treatment and prevention programs. But if we want to understand suicide, and perhaps help empower people to create lives worth living, we must look at all of these factors.

Social workers know that certain populations are especially at risk for suicidal thinking and behavior, including adolescents and young adults, the elderly, and members of minoritized populations such as the GLBTQ community and American Indians. A study in the news late last year, for example, found that Utah women are twice as likely as men to be on antidepressants, and depression can be linked to suicidal ideation. We have also known for years that the highest youth suicide rates are found among American Indians. People in at-risk populations may be more likely to experience isolation, oppression, and hopelessness, experiences that can be linked to suicidal ideation.

We can all make efforts to include all people in our daily environments and work to eliminate discrimination, bullying, and abuse. When we help empower members of oppressed and minoritized populations, we encourage them to find ways to develop lives worth living.

Another way to help empower people is to change the values we have about suicidal thinking. We may unknowingly silence our children, spouses, neighbors, and co-workers who are having suicidal thoughts, by viewing their thoughts and feelings as pathological (illness) rather than as part of pathos (deep sadness). In other words, since few of us want to be viewed as pathological or crazy, we may be reluctant to talk about difficult emotions until it is too late. Perhaps children and adults could have more opportunities to talk with each other about their difficult emotions in a safe and confidential dialogues, held in their families, classrooms, churches, and work place environments.

Finally, barriers to mental health services need to be eliminated. There will be people who need such services, but recent cutbacks in mental health may reduce access to trained therapists and other professionals.

Although no one wants to read about high rates of suicidal ideation, we can use this knowledge as a reminder that many people in our families, schools, churches, and communities do not feel that they belong, and may experience daily discrimination, bullying, and abuse.