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Working together to make ‘zero suicide’ a reality

Don Mordecai, MD
Don Mordecai, MD
National Leader for Mental Health and Wellness

It’s a disturbing reality that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens and young adults and the tenth-leading cause of death overall in the nation today. What’s behind these troubling statistics?

Suicide is a multi-faceted issue with roots that extend to many sectors of society. One contributing factor is that our nation’s health care system has historically failed to address patients’ mental health needs with the same urgency as their physical health needs, creating a disjointed system of care that hasn’t met growing demand for mental health services.

Though tragic, the situation is not hopeless. We know that there are successful interventions — in doctors’ offices, schools, and community settings — that save lives. Nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive will not go on to die by suicide, suggesting that these interventions can have a big impact. We at Kaiser Permanente believe that suicide is preventable and we’re working with like-minded partners across the country to make that a reality.

To further the conversation on the best ways to advance mental health care and prevent the rising rates of suicide nationwide, Kaiser Permanente’s Institute for Health Policy brought together leaders representing community organizations, the health care sector, government agencies, advocacy groups, researchers, and others to explore what’s working to prevent suicide. The forum, Taking Action to Prevent Suicide, held at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Total Health, focused on sharing evidence-based solutions in 3 specific settings: care systems, communities, and state and federal policy environments.

We heard many promising solutions throughout the day — I encourage you to watch video recordings of each session — and I want to reflect on a few strategies that caught my attention.

Care system solutions: Some care systems, including Kaiser Permanente, are effectively adopting the Zero Suicide framework, an evidence-based approach that embeds suicide prevention as a core responsibility for health care systems. Panelists reinforced the importance of having leadership support to position leaders and front-line staff as champions for implementing this type of system-level change.

Community solutions: The community solutions panel looked at how schools, community organizations, and faith communities can build resilience and provide support for people at risk of suicide. In schools, evidence-based programs such as the Good Behavior Game have been shown to reduce the incidence of suicidal ideation and attempts even a decade after the intervention. Faith communities can serve as first responders when people are in crisis — a notable example is the Faith, Hope, and Life Campaign.

Policy solutions: Changes in policy — at the federal, state, or local level — can improve the conditions (such as poverty and racism) in which people live, work, and learn that make people more vulnerable to suicide. Panelists stressed needing to collaborate across sectors and support upstream prevention strategies with far-reaching implications. At the state level, governments can adopt plans that apply public health techniques to prevent suicide while coordinating funding across agencies (this model has been working successfully in Washington state). Examples include implementing anti-bullying policies in schools, providing health professions with continuing education on suicide prevention, and creating safer homes by reducing access to lethal means.

At the end of the day, I had the opportunity to summarize these ideas and reflect on next steps. Now, a few weeks later, I continue to feel inspired by the resulting conversations, both in the room, online, and afterward with Kaiser Permanente staff and attendees. With the expertise and will of so many impassioned leaders in communities, government, and health care, I am hopeful for a future where zero suicide can b a reality.


Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All calls are confidential.

You can also text the Crisis Text Line available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Text “HOME” to 741741.

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