Researchers and experts say the first step in reducing the suicide rates in Tennessee — which stand at around 1,000 deaths annually, according to Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network statistics — is promoting awareness of the scope of the problem.
About 1,100 suicide deaths were reported in Tennessee in 2016, with nearly 100 of those being reported in Northeast Tennessee. Tennessee’s suicide rate is 20 percent higher than the national average.
But the rise in suicides isn’t just a state or regional trend, according to Jameson Hirsch, an associate professor in the East Tennessee State University Department of Psychology. Nationally, more than 40,000 Americans die from suicide annually despite the best efforts of mental health experts and professionals.
“Across the board in almost every state, suicide continues to rise,” he said. “What research shows is that, in some areas, even when we put the necessary services in place, people don’t access them.”
While suicide is a multi-faceted issue often resulting from environmental factors, biological factors, lack of adequate services and various socioeconomic factors, Hirsch said awareness can help counteract the “rugged individualism” that keeps many people from seeking help that is available.
“I think that there are things you can do at the grassroots community level besides just building facilities,” he said.
Some of the things that can be done with raised awareness involve common-sense measures, according to Greg Ordway, a professor in the ETSU Quillen College of Medicine, who recently garnered federal funding to develop new anti-depressant drugs.
Ordway said keeping guns away from people with depression and putting fences on high bridges can help deter suicide.
“The rates are increasing, but what if we were doing nothing? The rate would be really bad,” he said. “There’s more that can be done. We can remove lethal means, develop services, make people more aware and develop better treatments. We can do all those things to help turn the tide.”
First and foremost, Ordway said people need to talk more openly about their mental health.
“They need to talk about it more. Mental health has a stigma associated, and people are embarrassed to talk about it. You’ll see people talking about their kidney and heart, but when it comes to their brain, people don’t seek help because there’s a tendency to see it as a personal weakness,” he said. “It’s no more of a personal weakness than having a bad heart or a bad back.”