Suicide Prevention: It’s More Critical than Ever During the Pandemic

In the months since COVID-19 blindsided our world, virtually everything in our everyday lives has changed. Families are mourning the unexpected loss of loved ones. Businesses have closed. Californians who suddenly found themselves jobless are struggling to make ends meet. And children are attending school at their kitchen tables.

Add up all of these new stressors and it means that millions of people – many of them youth – are more vulnerable than ever to mental health risks, including suicide.

As we near the end of Suicide Prevention Month, we can celebrate some good news. Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2112, authorizing the creation of an Office of Suicide Prevention within the California Department of Public Health. In signing the bill, Newsom said the office will “help to advance our understanding of the causes of suicide in order to identify ways to prevent it, particularly among especially vulnerable populations.” He also said that reaching out “with sensitivity and understanding” to those in need of help was “vitally important.”

We couldn’t agree more. The need for leadership on suicide has never been greater. Grief, loneliness, economic stress, and uncertainty about the future all can lead to feelings of hopelessness and heighten suicide risk. And the pandemic has only exacerbated these factors.

A report released this week by the State Auditor underscores the risks associated with youth and suicide, and the imperative of supporting the implementation of state policy and best practice.

Fortunately, suicide is preventable, and the California Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission has produced a strategic plan to reduce suicide and suicidal behavior.  Striving for Zero is based on the best available research and evidence, and earlier this month, the Commission approved funding for five initiatives to begin implementing the plan:

  1. Advance Local Strategic Planning and Implementation
  2. Increase Lethal Means Safety
  3. Accelerate Standardized Suicide Risk Assessment and Management Training and Technology Support
  4. Deliver Standardized Suicide Risk Screening Training
  5. Create a Suicidal Behavior Research Agenda and Action Plan and Begin Implementation

In the coming months, the Commission will work with the Department of Public Health to align these initiatives with a new Suicide Prevention Program made possible by a grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The grant, amounting to $900,000 annually for five years through August 2025, will fund evidence-based suicide prevention strategies in as many as six local health departments. The strategies include reducing access to lethal means among people at risk via safe storage practices for firearms and medications; providing treatment to prevent suicide reattempts through emergency department interventions and active follow-up; and, providing parenting skills, family relationship programs, and social-emotional learning programs.

You’ll learn more about suicide prevention and how the Commission is putting Striving for Zero into practice in a series of posts here. Stay safe and stay tuned – our next update will be coming soon.