I hosted a public celebration at Pioneer Courthouse Square to mark the end of a hugely successful fundraising campaign for the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. The Phil and Penny Knight Foundation challenged Oregonians to raise $500 million dollars to fight cancer. Make that goal in two years, Knight said, and his foundation would match the giving. OHSU raised the money in a record sixteen months, with 85% of the giving coming from within Oregon. We made it. It was a moving and emotional experience to learn of the remarkable breakthroughs in saving the lives of people diagnosed with cancer, and to imagine the gains that will accrue after a one billion dollar investment in cancer detection and prevention.
In nearly every area of public health, startling improvements are being made. If research on cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes has proven anything, it is that research investments save lives. As Dr. Brian Druker pointed out, research dollars devoted to leukemia allowed him to create a lifesaving drug, Gleevec, which has revolutionized the quest for a cancer cure and saved countless lives.
Now, let’s look at the tenth leading cause of death. Suicide. In 2014, 41,000 people died by suicide, and yet, public and private investments in research are meager, according to the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Research Efforts 2008-2013 Portfolio Analysis. Unlike other causes of death, the suicide rate has shown no decline over the last fifty years. Overall, Americans are now more likely to die by suicide than in an automobile accident. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens ages 15-34. And the rate of suicide among middle-aged Americans has increased by 30% since 1999.
What is most perplexing is the accepted rate of failure. Many people who die by suicide are under the care of physicians. In the month before their death by suicide, about half saw a general practitioner. According to the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention, thirty percent of those who die by suicide saw a mental health professional. Health care professionals often fail to ask about suicide risk because they were never trained to or they don’t know how to recognize suicide warning signs.
If we could improve suicide identification and care in primary settings, or in emergency departments, where most people go when they are feeling suicidal, we would have the potential to save lives. If we adopted the expectation of recovery in care settings, we could save lives. If we invested in the prevention of suicide like we invest in the prevention of heart disease and cancer, we could save lives. We know this because we are watching the rate of suicide decline in other countries that have made suicide prevention a priority.
41,000 lives a year are in the balance.
The dedicated folks at OHSU have a great saying. “We fight cancer differently. We win.”
Imagine a similar phrase for the prevention of suicide. “Demand Hope. Demand Recovery. Nothing less than life will do.”