Find Your Seat at the Table for Suicide Prevention

Last Thursday, October 10 was World Mental Health Day. An international day for mental health education, awareness, and advocacy. This year’s focus was suicide prevention. We participated in various advocacy initiatives, including raising awareness that someone dies by suicide.

Photo Credit: WHO Global Mental Health Forum on October 15, by Dr. Geoffrey Reed

In addition to our advocacy efforts, this week, my colleague Dr. Geoffrey Reed had a seat at the WHO Mental Health Forum in Geneva where countries and organizations shared updates on strategies to improve mental health, including discussions around suicide prevention. Recognizing that it’s hard for most of us to know where to start, the World Health Organization produced the following animations about how we can open the conversation and be part of suicide prevention efforts in our own communities. Some ideas about how we can all play a part:


ICD-11 and Suicide Prevention. One of the ways that we hope to play our part in reducing suicide is through our contribution to the development of the ICD-11, which was adopted by all WHO member nations in May 2019. The ICD-11 is the system used by WHO member nations to diagnose and classify all health conditions, including mental and behavioral disorders. Representing our WHO Collaborating Centre at the WHO Mental Health Forum in Geneva this week, Dr. Reed discussed how the ICD-11 can support country and international action to improve mental health outcomes. Accurate diagnosis of mental disorders is an essential first step for enhancing our capacity to identify individuals at risk for suicide.


Educators and Suicide Prevention. Teachers and other educators have a unique role in suicide prevention efforts given their day-to-day interactions with students. It is important for teachers to be able to recognize the signs of suicide risk and make appropriate referrals. Middle and high school students are particularly vulnerable. This WHO animation focuses on creating school environments where students and staff know that they can seek help and talk to someone about mental health and suicide. This includes developing a mental health plan and training staff so they feel better able to identify and talk about suicide risk with students.


Emergency Responders and Suicide Prevention. Emergency workers are often first on the scene in a suicide attempt, so it is important for them to be adequately trained on how to support individuals in acute mental health crisis. Mental Health First Aid trainings are required for first responders in some parts of the US. Police officers are increasingly teamed up with therapists for mental illness crisis calls in what are called “co-response teams.” This WHO animation focuses on supporting emergency workers in suicide prevention – emphasizing that mental health emergencies can be effectively managed when we respond with empathy and kindness and when communities have appropriate systems in place. The animation also reminds us that first responders need to support each other and make time for self-care, given that they are at heightened risk of suicide themselves as a result of their repeated exposure to traumatic events.


Employers and Suicide Prevention. High pressure and difficult work environments can take a serious toll on mental health. Two-thirds of employees polled by The Stress Management Society reported poor or below average mental health wellbeing. Poor mental health can negatively impact job performance and productivity. Employers and managers have an important role to play in looking out for the mental health of their staff. Nearly three-quarters of employees want employers to champion mental health and well-being in the workplace. Some companies, such as AXA and HSBC, are actively taking steps to prioritize mental health in the workplace. This WHO animation highlights the opportunities that corporations have in creating a culture where employees feel safe to talk about their mental health and to seek help.


Health Care Workers and Suicide Prevention. People go to the doctor for many reasons. And sometimes the real reason is far more serious than the so-called presenting problem. Almost half of people who die by suicide in the United States visit their primary care provider within a month of their death. Health care workers are in a unique position to recognize the signs of someone who is struggling with their mental health or who is thinking about suicide. This is especially important for older adults, who are both at increased risk of suicide and more in touch with the healthcare system. This WHO animation reminds all healthcare workers to look for signs that someone may be struggling with mental health problems. It provides guidance on asking gentle, but direct questions. And it reminds healthcare providers of their particular opportunity to listen, express empathy, and provide ongoing support and follow-up for mental health.

As emphasized by WHO’s suicide prevention campaign, “When it comes to suicide, a few words can make a world of difference.” Suicide impacts all of our lives, and none of us wants to lose a loved one, colleague, or community member to suicide. We all have a seat at the table and a part to play in suicide prevention. As a first step, you can simply share one of these WHO animations with a loved one, friend, or colleague. And if you are struggling with mental health problems or feeling suicidal, know that help is available. You can talk to someone you know and trust, call the Suicide Prevention Life Line at 1-800-273-8255, or reach Crisis Text Line by texting “connect” to 741741 from anywhere in the world.

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University
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