In summary

California has launched a comprehensive suicide prevention campaign to ensure people receive the support they need before reaching a crisis point.

By James C. Ramos and

Assemblymember James C. Ramos, a Democrat from San Bernardino County, represents the 40th Assembly District, James.Ramos@asm.ca.gov. He is the first California Native American elected to the Legislature.

Lynne Ashbeck, Special to CalMatters

Lynne Ashbeck is chair of the state Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission, mhsoac@mhsoac.ca.gov. She is the senior vice president of Community Engagement and Population Health at Valley Children’s Healthcare, Madera.

COVID-19 has upended life as we know it, shuttering businesses, devastating families and fracturing communities. It has also left millions of people – many of them youth – more vulnerable than ever to suicide.

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Grief, loneliness, economic stress, uncertainty about the future – all these pandemic-related emotions can foster feelings of hopelessness and increase the risk of suicide. And while official data won’t be available for some time, we know that calls to hotlines have spiked and firearm sales have surged, a disturbing trend given data showing that guns are the most common method for suicide in the U.S.

Despite this bleak backdrop, we have good news: suicide is preventable, and California has launched a comprehensive campaign to ensure people receive the support they need before reaching a crisis point.

The campaign is laid out in the state’s new strategic plan for suicide prevention, Striving for Zero. Produced by the California Mental Health Services Oversight & Accountability Commission, the plan is anchored in years of suicide research and reflects an extensive community engagement process conducted across the state.

The 2020-21 budget recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom includes $2 million to fund measures outlined in the report, which aims to help local governments, educators, industry, health care providers, community organizations and everyday Californians do a better job detecting and responding to suicide risk.

Key to those prevention efforts is the establishment of state-level leadership to push for long-term reductions in suicide death and suicidal behavior. Assembly Bill 2112 would do just that, creating an Office of Suicide Prevention within the California Department of Public Health. AB 2112, introduced by Assemblyman James C. Ramos, passed unanimously in the Assembly and awaits action in the Senate.

Why is such leadership important? While suicide prevention efforts are already occurring across the state, we need coordination, clear messages about best practices, vigilant monitoring of suicide data and a prominent advocate who can focus support on all groups but especially those with the highest risk of suicide, including youth, older adults, veterans and LGBTQ people. 

Among young people, American Indian and Alaska Native youth and young adults have the highest rate of suicide of any ethnic or cultural group in the United States. It is the second leading cause of death for that same group of children and adults ages 10 to 34.  

We also know that suicide rates in California are highest among whites (17.1 per 100,000 people) and Native Americans (15.6 per 100,000 people). Statistics are unacceptable for any group of individuals, but we must focus on the most vulnerable.

More than 47,000 Americans – nearly 4,500 of them Californians – lose their lives to suicide each year, and the national suicide rate has been on the rise since 1999. 

Experts warn that stay-at-home orders, physical distancing and other elements of the pandemic put vulnerable people at even greater risk of suicide. As noted in the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry, there is evidence that suicide deaths increased during previous crises, such as the 1918 Spanish flu and 2003 SARS outbreak. The suicide rate in the U.S. also rose sharply in the first few years after the 2008 recession, as millions of Americans grappled with economic distress.

A rise in suicide is by no means inevitable, and California’s suicide prevention plan can equip communities with the information they need to minimize risk, improve access to care and address suicidal behaviors. The funding in this year’s budget should target four priorities:

  • Providing suicide prevention training for educators, health care providers and others.
  • Expanding suicide screening for clients in health, mental health and substance use disorder care settings.
  • Improving methods by which people at risk of suicide are connected to support services in the community.
  • Establishing centralized electronic reporting systems to capture data related to suicide and strengthen prevention strategies.

There’s no question that these unprecedented times have intensified the mental health challenges faced by many Californians. Despite persistent misconceptions, however, suicide is preventable; we can save lives. 

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