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World Suicide Prevention Day

Washington, DC
September 10, 2010

Thank you, Pam [Hyde] for the introduction and for being such a great leader.

With a health care system that still excludes tens of millions of Americans with mental and substance use disorders, we’re fortunate to have Pam and her team working day in and day out, making sure people get the services they need to recover. And there is no area of their work where needs are more urgent than in preventing suicide.

Every year, suicide claims over 34,000 lives in the United States. For every two people who are murdered, three die by suicide. That’s the equivalent of one suicide every 15 minutes; almost 100 suicides a day.

Today, on World Suicide Prevention Day, the Department of Health and Human Services is releasing new numbers that show just how big a challenge we face. In the past year, more than eight million Americans 18 or older thought seriously about committing suicide, more than two million had a suicide plan, and more than one million attempted to take their own lives.

The numbers are troubling. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people age 15 to 24, and we’re seeing suicide rates among young American Indians and Alaska Natives that are double. Other groups of young people—for example young Latinas and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths—also have alarming rates of attempted suicide.

And for some groups across the country like middle-aged men, suicide rates are actually climbing. We’re also seeing dangerous trends in our Armed Forces. This June, the Army saw the most deaths from suicide it has ever recorded in a one-month period.

These deaths are even more tragic because we know they are preventable. Roughly 90 percent of people who die by suicide suffered from depression or another diagnosable condition at the time of their death.

We also know what steps we need to take to prevent suicide, thanks in part to the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, a roadmap the Office of the Surgeon General issued nearly a decade ago.

Guided by that roadmap, government agencies at all levels, schools, non-profit organizations, and businesses stepped forward with public awareness campaigns.

We now have a national Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a Best Practices Registry, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the National Violent Death Reporting System. We’ve improved prevention planning and programming; we have better risk detection.

And as a result of these changes, we’ve made some progress, for example in falling suicide rates among some groups like young teens and older men.

We’ve also passed legislation like the Mental Health Parity Act and the Affordable Care Act that will give people with mental and substance use disorders better access to care.

While these efforts are bringing increased attention and investment, progress is at best uneven.

Part of the reason why is that we never followed through on one key recommendation of the Surgeon General’s report – that we establish a coordinated nationwide suicide prevention strategy.

Today, we’re putting that missing piece in place, by creating the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

The National Action Alliance is not just another high-level committee that will hold a few meetings and write a report. It is a public-private sector collaboration, with real responsibility to take the steps needed to accelerate our work in suicide prevention, including better research, better protocols for correctional institutions, and better training for counselors and primary care among others.

The Alliance will update and advance that national strategy, develop and implement a nationwide public awareness campaign, and focus on high-risk populations.

The Alliance’s marching orders will be carried out by experts and advocates from the private and philanthropic sectors, every level of government, researchers, health care providers, survivors, business and faith leaders and the Armed Forces. Each member of this Alliance brings suicide-prevention expertise, experience and resources to the table that could never be rallied if they were working alone.

We’re creating this Alliance at a time when we’re already building new partnerships in this area. Last June, I had the opportunity to join the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration at a conference on reintegrating returning service members. At that conference, we discussed the suicide rates among our service men and women. One of the outcomes of that conference was a memorandum of understanding between our agencies to make sure service members—and their families—get the services and support they need to return to civilian life.

I am pleased today to stand with my colleague Secretary Gates to announce this effort. Both the Defense Department and the Veteran’s Administration will be represented on the public sector side of the Alliance, which will be co-chaired by Secretary of the Army John McHugh. We’ll also have representatives from the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and many operating divisions at HHS.

Our private sector co-chair is former Senator Gordon Smith. Senator Smith is a leading light for suicide prevention, and the man behind the state, tribal and college prevention and awareness programs that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration operate under the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Act.

Private and non-profit organizations have done so much to raise awareness about suicide and get the country to focus on solutions. So I also want to thank the scientific, educational, philanthropic, and faith-based groups who are part of the National Council for Suicide Prevention here with us today.

Suicide is a tragedy with the potential to touch every American. Now, thanks to the best minds who have agreed to be part of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, we will be able to work together more effectively than ever before to reach those people at risk and help them stay safe.