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Suicide Prevention: The Definitive Guide to Raising Awareness

Suicide Prevention header image

In the United States alone, suicide accounts for nearly 40,000 lost lives per year. That’s the equivalent of death by suicide in the US every 12.3 minutes.

How can you effectively raise awareness and create prevention about such a sensitive subject?

Fundamentals of the Best Campaigns:

  • Evaluate relevant data and segment audiences.

  • Review the warning signs of suicide and develop strong calls to action around these risks.

  • Emphasize hopeful and powerful messaging while framing suicide as a preventable act.

  • Utilize effective resources during the campaign that continue ongoing suicide awareness.

  • Empower participants with tools to talk to at-risk individuals and ultimately prevent suicide throughout the year.

Follow the steps on this and following pages to help you bridge the gap between your campaign participants and at-risk individuals, with the tools necessary to spread awareness.

Step 1: Segment Your Audiences & Evaluate Suicide Risk Factors

Segmenting your audience around age, cultural backgrounds, and shared values is the first step in developing an effective campaign. Start by reviewing relevant resources and data that speak to these audiences.

The truth is that anyone can be at risk. Because your audience is influenced by differing information and events, it’s important your participants are cognizant of relevant data.

Factors vary and may even change over time, although many campaigns will be segmented around four factors:

  • Gender - Males represent 79% of all US suicide deaths.

  • Age - Suicidal thoughts, planning, and attempts are significantly higher among individuals aged 18-29 than among those aged 30+

  • Military - In 2012, the number of military suicides exceeded the number of those killed in combat

  • Racial & Economic - The highest suicide rates in the US are among Caucasians, American Indians, and Alaska Natives

It’s equally important to emphasize the nuances within your target audiences.Once your participants understand the specifics of these audiences, they’ll be able to identify barriers, risks, and specific challenges to their campaigns.

Highlighting risk factors behind suicide image

Mental Disorders

In spite of being overstated, suicide does disproportionately affect individuals with mental illness. Not everyone who experiences a mental illness is suicidal—but of those who die from suicide, more than 90% have a diagnosable mental disorder.

Substance Misuse

The connection between substance abuse and suicide has traditionally been misunderstood, according to SAMHSA. However, experts encourage a public health approach that leverages both mental health and substance abuse knowledge to improve prevention efforts.

For example, an increasing amount of evidence suggests that alcohol and drug abuse is second only to depression and mood disorders as risk factors.

Life Events

An individual’s surroundings and environment can heavily contribute to suicide risk.

Common stressful life events include:

  • Death

  • Divorce

  • Job loss

Prolonged stress factors include:

  • Harassment

  • Bullying

  • Relationship problems

  • Unemployment

Step 2: Review Suicide Warning Signs

It’s important to not only discuss the data surrounding suicide, but the warning signs as well. Being cognizant of the numerous warning signs helps you identify and ultimately mitigate the greater problem at hand.

According to a California suicide prevention campaign, knowing the signs is the first step in preventing suicide. In fact, the campaign suggests developing strong calls to action around signs such as these.

Knowing the differences between high-risk, self-harm, and suicidal behavior greatly improves your outreach efforts.

  • High-risk: Often includes drug or alcohol use, and daredevil or peer pressure-influenced antics.

  • Self-harm: Commonly known as “cutting,” although these behaviors include a variety of actions that result in self-inflicted injuries.

  • Suicidal behavior: The conscious thinking and planning of how to end one’s life. May or may not occur in conjunction with self-harm behavior.

Step 3: Emphasize Hopeful & Powerful Messaging

As campaign facilitator, one of your most important steps is developing responsible messaging. Talking about suicide can be complex. Far too often, there is a stigma associated with the subject of suicide.

Experts suggest that suicide is a public health issue. Consider treating it as such in your campaigns.

So what do you do? Here are the best ways to develop effective messaging:

  • Emphasize the hope of recovery through your messaging.

  • Highlight the power of long-standing and personal relationships.

  • Work hard to frame suicide as a preventable act.

  • Provide comprehensive resources for adults, pertaining to youth suicide.

  • Link facts and data with suicide when acceptable to the target audience.

  • Avoid reporting that suicide is linked to a single event.

  • Do not glorify or romanticize suicide.

  • Do not normalize suicide or make it to appear common.

  • Do not frame suicide as an inexplicable act.

Step 4: Utilize Effective Resources

Suicide Awareness Campaigns require a lot of resources including:

  • Sustained funding

  • Sufficient numbers of trained personnel and human resources.

  • Sustained leadership and collaboration.

  • Culturally-relevant, evidence-based prevention programs.

  • Access to data

  • Identified implementation partners.

In addition to finances, it’s important to account for human resources and the numerous intangible factors that ultimately affect the outcome of your program. While you may not suspect it, time is indeed a resource—especially when you’re working on small outreach groups with limited staff and volunteers.

Most importantly however, are the promotional and marketing materials you choose to utilize.

Why? Because the material you choose dictates the scope and general atmosphere or branding of your campaign.

Awareness boards can supplement your campaign by providing participants with a visual presentation of statistics and warning signs, while items such as wallet cards and informational brochures can help carry your campaign to your community.

These tangible items perpetually share information without draining human resources. It’s very important to be aware of your audience before you determine your promotional and marketing materials.

  • Audience-specific educational materials are catered to segmented audiences such as the military, colleges and universities, or Native Americans, and are significantly more successful in reaching individuals. Research shows specific materials are more successful in reaching segmented groups. These items include educational brochures, pamphlets, and other informational products.

  • General promotional materials provide your participants with an understanding of suicide on a broader level. Examples of these types of promotional items include t-shirts, banners, pens, drinkware, bags and similar items.

suicide prevention tool tips

Step 5: Empower Participants for Suicide Prevention

The overarching purpose of any campaign rests in the actual implementation of your plan.

With your audience in mind, create a slogan, choose prevention outreach materials, and decide what awareness activities and events will best reach your community.

Tip #1 - Empower your Participants to Speak Up

Let your participants know it’s normal to feel hesitations about talking to a friend or family member about suicide. However, it’s equally important to equip them with tools to talk to individuals.

Common ways to start a conversation about suicide:

“I’ve been feeling concerned about you lately.”

“I’ve noticed some recent changes in you and wondered how you are doing.”

Common questions to ask: “When did you begin feeling like this?” “Did something happen that made you feel this way?” “How can I best support you right now?” “Have you thought about getting help?”

Common advice that empowers suicidal individuals:

“You are not alone in this.”

“I’m here for you.”

“I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.”

Tip #2 - Teach Participants to Respond Appropriately

Generally speaking, there are four levels of risk. Make sure participants are familiar with them:

Low – Some suicidal thoughts. No suicide plan. Says he or she won't commit suicide.

Moderate – Some suicidal thoughts. Vague plan that isn't lethal. Says he or she won't commit suicide.

High – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she won't commit suicide.

Severe – Suicidal thoughts. Specific plan that is highly lethal. Says he or she will commit suicide.

The following questions can help assess the level of risk:

“Do you have a suicide plan?”

“Do you have what you need to carry out your plan (pills, gun, etc.)?”

“Do you know when you would do it?”

“Do you intend to commit suicide?”

The different levels of risk lend themselves to different types of response. For low risk to moderate risk individuals these responses can aid in the path to recovery:

Seek out professional help

Follow up on treatment

Encourage positive lifestyle changes

Remove potential means of suicide

For high risk individuals:

Seek out professional help immediately

Remove any potential means of suicide

Never leave a suicidal individual alone

Tip #3 - Equip Participants with Tools for Help and Support

It’s important to emphasize the power of community and personal relationships along with the appropriate resources for help. Ultimately, your participants should know that professional help may be necessary.

Include up-to-date local and national resources that participants can utilize to find information, treatment options, and advice that emphasizes the possibility of recovery and a general sentiment of self-empowerment.

By providing resources and tools that segmented audiences can actively utilize, you are equipping your participants with direct solutions. Focus on recovery and address suicide as the public health issue it truly is.

Suicide Prevention Resources


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