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Op-ed: Lower health care costs can combat rising suicide rates

Deseret News - 6/22/2018

With high-profile suicides from Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain still in the news and a 24 percent increase in suicides nationwide since 1999 (including a 46 percent spike in the state of Utah), one question looms: What can we do?

There is an elephant in the room. Evidence showing that cities and states with stricter gun control have less successful suicide attempts (owing to the lethality of guns), can be put to the side to avoid the inevitable Second Amendment zealotry. There are still other powerful options to reduce suicide attempts.

The first and obvious solution is to increase psychiatric care options and to lower the cost. Access to health care in America is already much worse than is necessary, but often access to mental health care is abysmal. North Dakota saw the biggest spike in suicides in the past two decades while unsurprisingly also suffering through a severe shortage of mental health professionals. Increasing the number of psychologists and psychiatrists and subsidizing visits (or expanding Medicare to all in a single-payer style system) would be a great first step.

Reducing the stigma attached to seeking counseling or mental health care must be a priority. America has grappled with this social issue of labeling those seeking treatment for decades. We still sometimes label others as weak or loony for seeking help. We wouldn’t do that if you were seeking treatment for lupus, and we shouldn’t for mental health.

A step in this direction directed squarely at teenagers in the wake of repeated tragedies in our state would be to include mental health exams by psychologists in middle and high schools. It could be included as part of students' yearly counselor meetings or as a standalone program. If everyone is getting help or talking to someone, the stigma will fade.

The final idea is another medical one. Our PAs, family medicine, nurse practitioners and primary care physicians should be trained to diagnose and treat depression. More than one-third of all people who attempt suicide see a doctor within four months of the act, with an even higher percentage seeing a doctor within a year of their attempt. These patients are often seeking help with the physical manifestations of depression. If they could be diagnosed and treated by their primary care physicians, the doctor they are most likely to feel comfortable seeing, they could get the treatment they really need.

All of this, of course, will require more money invested by the state and federal government. If this isn’t an area worth the investment, what is? More than 40,000 Americans are dying every year, and thousands more are suffering. Increasing psychiatric care options while lowering costs, reducing the stigma involved in seeking mental health treatment and expanding the base of professionals equipped to diagnose and treat depression are the three most effective solutions to combat this issue. We have the power and the funds to address this; it is imperative that the state and country move swiftly to do so.

CREDIT: Jason Chandler, Deseret News


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