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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Washington leading way on suicide prevention

For a problem of such immense magnitude, suicide remains in the shadows. But participants at a multi-state conference Tuesday at Gonzaga University are determined to keep the spotlight on this most preventable form of death.

First, the staggering numbers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• In 2011, nearly 40,000 Americans killed themselves.

• It’s the 10th leading cause of death and has overtaken auto accidents as the No. 1 injury-related death.

• More than 483,586 people were treated in emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries in 2012.

• The annual societal cost of suicides and self-inflicted injuries is $41.2 billion.

Any other public health issue of this impact would be a constant source of discussion, but suicide is often met with collective silence. It was only last year that Washington became the first state to mandate suicide prevention training for health care practitioners before they could receive their credentials.

Think about that.

Lay people routinely learn first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, but most health care professionals don’t know how to assess a patient who is potentially suicidal. Nor do they know what to do when a patient says they’re thinking of killing themselves. For this reason, some doctors dread asking the question.

People assume doctors know what to do, but they often do not, says Paul Quinnett, founder of the QPR Institute for Suicide Prevention. QPR (question, persuade, refer) offers training that has proven to be effective. He was a key proponent of the state law requiring health care providers to learn this form of triage.

Many people who kill themselves see a primary care provider in the same month, so there is a huge opportunity to prevent deaths if providers are alerted to the threat.

Dr. John Osborn, a longtime physician at the Spokane Veterans Affairs hospital, says he never had training for suicide issues. Congress should copy Washington state’s law, especially since veterans are at a higher risk for suicide.

For unknown reasons, suicide is more prevalent in the Western states. Montana is the leader in per capita suicides. It could be the vast empty spaces, which isolate people from each other and from mental health care. It could be the greater availability of guns. Males are four times more likely to kill themselves, and more than half the time they use a gun.

Compounding the suicide prevention challenge is the fact that men are more stubborn about seeking treatment. More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves are diagnosed with depression or some other mental health issue.

The Gonzaga conference gathered participants from Washington, Idaho and Montana to share stories, coordinate efforts and to keep the issue about this silent epidemic at the forefront.

Washington, with its law mandating training, should continue to take a leadership role.

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