Addressing Despair through Partnerships

January 12, 2018

News Type:  Director's Corner
Author:  Elly Stout, MS, SPRC Director, Education Development Center, Inc.

We’ve known for many years that substance use and suicide are connected. But in recent years, that connection has grown increasingly apparent in our country, with stories of overdoses and suicide deaths appearing in the news on an almost daily basis. These tragic losses make the link between substance abuse and suicide an area of increasing importance for SPRC and the field of suicide prevention. The good news is: we do know a lot about how to address substance abuse and suicideBut we can’t do it on our own—turning the tide will take working in partnership across sectors, fields, and agencies.

It is well-established that substance abuse and suicide share key risk and protective factors. Substance abuse itself is linked to suicide risk, with drug and alcohol use putting people at up to 14 times higher risk for suicidal behaviors. To build on this known connection, recent studies of general population death trends in the U.S. have noted that deaths from overdose, suicide, and alcohol-related diseases have been on the rise over the past 15 years, particularly among working-age adults. Researchers and the popular media point to a common factor among these “deaths of despair”: people’s experiences of psychological or physical pain, or both. When that pain becomes unbearable, individuals are turning to alcohol, substances, and/or suicide as the only options they can see to relieve their suffering.

What is behind the pain people are experiencing? A flurry of factors seem to have aligned at this point in time, including changes in economic opportunity for some, a fraying of community cohesion and connectedness, an aging population, and increases in physical health challenges. What is clear is that our response will need to be multifaceted and broad, with changes needed at every level, from health systems to communities, from prescribers to families and caregivers. This need was highlighted in the new report Pain in the Nation, which discusses the interconnections between substance abuse, psychological pain, violence, and suicide and overdose deaths.

There are big changes to make, and while the suicide prevention field brings valuable skills and experience, we can’t address these issues alone. We need to reach out to the substance abuse prevention and treatment fields, connect with clinicians working to address chronic pain, and engage workplaces, law enforcement, and emergency responders. Many of you are already making some of these connections in your communities, but finding ways to engage and collaborate with other individuals and groups can be a challenge. Fortunately, there are some great resources available on the SPRC website to help you get started with new and “non-traditional” partnerships, including a brand new state virtual learning lab module. And both SPRC’s Substance Abuse and Suicide Prevention Collaboration Continuum and SAMHSA’s Prevention Collaboration in Action Toolkit offer real life examples of what that kind of collaboration can look like on the ground.

With partnerships, some new and some long-standing, the collective efforts of our organizations, communities, states, and nation can reduce the widespread suffering across the country. It will take all of our public health, mental health, substance abuse prevention, health care, and community-based partners to make real change. Building these bridges won’t be easy. But in the field of suicide prevention, bringing partners together to help turn despair into hope is what we’re all about.