The collective grief around the death of Robin Williams has been remarkable, but not at all surprising. His big personality contributed to the worldview of generations of people and his untimely death exposes the horrific and non-discriminatory nature of mental illness.
But as I find myself joining the myriad others on social media in mourning his death, what I cannot understand is why there isn’t a similar collective public call to urgently address suicide.
This is a healthcare crisis – indeed, it has been one for some time.
The horrifying fact is that more people die each year from suicide than from war and homicide combined. As Adrian Strain, the father of yet another young man lost to suicide, so eloquently reminded us on the Today Programme last Thursday morning – we must do something about this.
There are indeed important steps we are taking to prevent deaths due to suicide, including erecting physical barriers, limiting access to hazardous products and, of course, promoting responsible journalism. But these efforts do not address the core fact that we know little about suicide, how to identify people at risk or how to treat suicidal thinking.
The need for more research into the biology, psychology and sociology of suicide is clear. Indeed, it is so important that the new journal The Lancet Psychiatry devoted much of its inaugural issue to the topic. In England we have Preventing Suicide in England – a cross-government outcomes strategy to reduce suicide deaths. And in the US, the American Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has gone a step further and produced a prioritised research agenda.
There are a few key points emerging from research efforts that are important to recognise. Firstly, deaths due to suicide are not declining, despite all our investments in research and prevention. We need to tackle this.
Secondly, if we improve access to better mental health care and treatment, we believe we can reduce mortality. But the relationship between mental illness and suicide is more challenging than that. Suicidal behaviours result from a complex interaction of many factors that we need to understand better: biological, environmental, psychological and genetic.
Finally, whilst a ‘call to action’ on research is evolving, the path forward is not so well developed. My charity, MQ: Transforming Mental Health has been formed to address this, and promote the huge need for integrated and inter-disciplinary research into mental health problems.
The public discourse about suicide shows us how important this effort will be in not just reducing distress, but in saving lives.
Last updated: 1 June 2016