Opinion: Suicide is a greater threat than vaping

Daniel J. Kelly
More than 16 million Americans over age 18 are clinically depressed, and those are only the ones who have been diagnosed. Many people don’t realize their physical symptoms – such as upset stomach, headache and sleep problems – are actually depression. If your doctor has explored all possible medical causes for your physical symptoms, ask for a referral to a mental health specialist.

Last week, Michigan became the first state in the nation to ban flavored nicotine vaping products, following numerous findings from health officials that high numbers of youth vaping constitute a public health emergency, and several mysterious deaths of individuals using these products.

While I commend Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for taking a stand on making our children and all Michigan residents safer from potentially dangerous products, we have a plague far greater than vaping that has been drastically affecting children and families across our state: suicide.

In Michigan, the heartbreaking numbers speak for themselves.

On average, a person dies by suicide every seven hours in our state — nearly 1,300 individuals a year; suicide is the second leading cause of death for residents ages 15-34 — more than twice as many people die by suicide each year than by homicide.

And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1999 and 2016, our state’s suicide rate increased by one-third, higher than the overall 30 percent national rate of increase, which further highlights the urgency of this issue.

It is our collective responsibility to those struggling with mental illness who show warning signs that they may attempt to take their own life.

Warning signs are not always evident, but we should be aware of risk factors, including withdrawal from family and friends, impulsive behavior, increased substance use, giving away of possessions or dramatic life events like serious illness, divorce, loss of a job or a death in a family and possibly collecting weapons.

We also must be keen observers of our ever-changing social scene. An example is an epidemic of teen suicide that we have witnessed in recent years in both urban and rural areas of our state, to include “copycat” suicides and “suicide pacts.”

A recent Bridge Magazine article on the surge of teen suicides noted that, according to Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy organization, nearly 11% of Michigan youth ages 12-17 have a major depressive disorder.

More than 60% of these individuals receive no mental health treatment. In addition to mental illness, we must now add issues such as bullying and peer pressure, often spread through the frenzy of social media, as possible triggers.

We must continue to support and fund Michigan's suicide prevention programs and initiatives, including hotlines and crisis intervention programs.

We must train public safety officers and other first responders, as well as school counselors and teachers to identify and work with those contemplating or acting out a suicide attempt.

We must advocate for funding of mental health services, whether governmental programs or through private insurance carriers.

Finally, we must eliminate the stigma or fear of asking for help and participating in mental health programs. Some cry out for help. With others, it’s barely a whisper. Regardless, we must listen closely and guide the way for those in need of help, adding to information and resources, compassion and understanding.

In contrast with health issues like vaping, which are trending topics that can dominate the news cycle, the effects of suicide on our society are much greater yet easy to forget about on a day-to-day basis. We must not forget, though, and the grim numbers on suicide in Michigan will not start a path toward improvement without a dedicated effort to address the issue from all stakeholders.

Daniel J. Kelly is a co-founder, chairman of the board and interim president & CEO at Rose Hill Center in Holly, one of the nation’s leading residential rehabilitation facilities for adults with serious mental illness.