By Nina Dragicevic  

Mental illness, addiction, relationship breakdown, job loss, poor health, isolation: how can we reduce suicide deaths when they are often the result of a complex interaction of factors

It’s a critical question to ask — suicide is the second leading cause of death for Canadian young adults and the third leading cause for those between the ages of 30 and 44.

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“For decades, researchers across the globe have been investigating whether there is more that we can do to reduce suicide deaths,” says British TV personality Dr. Xand van Tulleken featured in The Passionate Eye documentary Dying for Help. “It is a hugely complex task, but there are glimmers of hope.”

Safety nets prevent deaths

The simplest solutions can be the most effective: if you install a net under bridges, fewer people tend to die by suicide.

Experts say if desperate people are deterred from leaping off a tall structure, it’s unlikely they’ll seek out a different method. This means a net can save lives without anyone even using it.

“Studies have shown that when nets or barriers have been installed on [bridges], they have dramatically reduced the number of deaths by suicide — not only in that location but in the surrounding area as a whole,” van Tulleken says.

Kevin Briggs, formerly a highway patrol officer on California’s Golden Gate Bridge, was part of a campaign to build a safety net along the world-famous structure. Construction just started in 2018, with completion estimated for 2021.

In his roughly 17 years patrolling the bridge, Briggs talked down many would-be jumpers. He calls suicide an “impulsive act,” adding that without the means available, crises tend to pass and lives can be saved.

“I’m hoping this will stop suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge altogether,” he says.

Using A.I. to predict suicide is 90 per cent accurate

Predicting who is at risk is key to reducing suicide deaths. Unfortunately, no single factor, or small group of factors, can predict who will attempt or die from suicide “[any] better than a coin flip,” says Dr. Joe Franklin of Florida State University.

Machine learning algorithms, however, have potential, since they can rapidly process seemingly infinite amounts of data. Franklin’s research team uses Americans’ health records and machine learning algorithms to analyze up to 800 factors at a time, and has developed a prediction model with unprecedented success.

“We’re able to predict both non-fatal suicide attempts and suicide death with about 90 per cent accuracy, a few years before it happens,” Franklin says. The next frontier of this technology, he adds, is working with front-line clinicians to put the prediction model into practical use.

Ask patients if they have suicidal thoughts

Another simple solution has reduced suicides by 80 per cent for patients served by one Michigan health-care provider.

The Henry Ford Health System’s “zero suicides” initiative is fairly straightforward: primary care doctors ask every patient, regardless of what health issue they came for, if they have had suicidal thoughts. At-risk patients are then offered support, whether it’s through therapy, medication or home visits to help remove firearms.

“Our suicide rate decreased by 80 per cent, and we even had some years where it was zero,” says Dr. Cathrine Frank, one of the founders of the program. “If we change the way we think about health care, we can prevent suicides.”

Talk to loved ones

Screening for suicidal thoughts isn’t limited to hospital care. All of us can reach out to family or friends that may be isolated or going through a rough time, van Tulleken says.

“Turn to the person next to you or phone a mate and ask them — not just, ‘Are you doing OK?’ but, ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself?’” he says.

Talking about suicidal thoughts can encourage people to seek help, says psychology professor Rory O’Connor, director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory in Scotland. It can also remind the person that someone cares for them.

“Asking somebody directly whether they’re suicidal can actually protect them,” O’Connor says. “Reaching out in moments of crisis can save a life.”

To learn more, watch Dying for Help on The Passionate Eye.

If you are in a crisis, call 1-833-456-4566, available 24/7, or visit crisisservicescanada.ca for text or chat options.