May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Awareness is good, but it isn’t enough.
Awareness alone doesn’t translate into action or prevention of suicide. It’s time to address the failure of the mainstream mental health treatment model and offer real solutions to save lives.
A chilling total of seven student suicides over the school year at North Carolina State University is a heartbreaking reminder of the ongoing crisis in youth mental health. It’s a painful example of the failures in our current approach to suicide prevention and the need for change.
Suicide Rates in the US
Between 2000 and 2021 the rate of suicide in the United States increased by 36% (CDC 2023). Suicide is the ninth leading cause of death among 10-64 year olds and the second leading cause of death in those aged 10-14 and 20-34 (CDC 2023). One person dies every eleven minutes from suicide.
A recent study found that emergency room visits for suicide among pediatric patients and young adults increased by a staggering five times from 2011 to 2020 (Bommersboch 2023). Numerous organizations have sounded the alarm over mental health and suicide concerns, especially in our youth, describing the current situation as a crisis (AAP 2021).
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Why Have Suicide Rates Increased?
And yet with all the modern tools of mainstream psychiatry, with the growing acceptance and use of psychotropic medications, suicide rates have only gone up. Prescription rates for medications to treat mental health concerns have more or less doubled in adolescents between 1999 and 2018 (Johansen 2021). If prescribing medications were helpful, you would expect suicide rates to have decreased, yet they haven’t. Increased prescribing has coincided with increasing levels of suicide, clearly showing that our current model of mental health care is painfully ineffective for addressing or preventing the crisis.
Functional Medicine for Suicide Prevention: A Better Way
It’s incredibly disheartening and frustrating to read the news about the recent cases and statistics that simply emphasize the depth of the problem. We need new solutions, not more dismal statistics. Mainstream psychiatry for years has categorically ignored the fact that a number of biomarkers often predict suicide risk. Addressing these factors with functional medicine approaches could present a new model for suicide prevention. And I should know, as I’ve used many of these biomarkers to effectively reduce and prevent suicide with my own patients for years.
Lithium and Suicide
Some of the strongest data focuses on suicide risk and lithium exposure from groundwater. A recent review found clear associations between higher trace levels of lithium in tap water and reduced suicide rates in the local population (Fadaei 2023).
While tap water is not always the most reliable source of the mineral, low-dose lithium supplementation is readily available. In my clinical experience with thousands of patients, low-dose lithium has long been a safe and effective treatment to reduce the risk of suicide.
Inflammation and Suicide
Recent research has identified another potential biomarker for suicide risk: inflammation. The relationship is thought to extend from aversive childhood experiences, known to disrupt immune function and increase levels of inflammation in both the brain and body (Donegan 2023).
One of the simplest ways to assess inflammation is by measuring blood levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP). When measured directly, CRP has also been shown to correlate with suicide risk (Miola 2021).
The latest results clearly identify inflammation as another risk factor. Fortunately, inflammation can also be a treatment target. By identifying the underlying cause of the inflammation and treating it appropriately, levels of inflammation—and suicide risk—can be reduced.
Low Cholesterol and Suicide
A separate factor that also deserves more attention and treatment is low cholesterol levels. For many years the data has shown robust correlations between low cholesterol and suicide (Li 2020). And for many years the relationship has been categorically ignored. In fact, while the literature clearly shows that low cholesterol increases suicide risk, there isn’t a single published study that has explored cholesterol for prevention or treatment. Does raising low cholesterol levels reduce suicide risk? In my clinical experience, I would emphatically say, “Yes!”
Cholesterol is another risk factor for suicide that can easily be addressed. Increasing cholesterol intake, when appropriate, can have an impact on suicidality. Yet addressing cholesterol, inflammation and lithium are just the beginning of a potential foundation for a paradigm shift in suicide prevention. There is research on other factors and biomarkers as well.
FREE Training: A Functional Approach to Suicide Prevention
Due to my overriding concerns about mainstream psychiatry’s repeated failure to address the suicide epidemic, I’m once again offering my online course on suicide prevention FOR FREE, now through the end of May. The course lays out a scientific foundation, corroborated by years of my own clinical experience, on how to address and reduce suicide risks.
I encourage you to explore this course and the protocols outlined therewithin. Our patients deserve better preventative measures and treatment options.
Get our Suicide Prevention online course FREE through May 31 with code:
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. National Vital Statistics System, Mortality 2018-2021 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released in 2023. Data are from the Multiple Cause of Death Files, 2018-2021, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed Jan 11, 2023. http://wonder.cdc.gov/mcd-icd10-expanded.html
Bommersbach TJ, McKean AJ, Olfson M, Rhee TG. National Trends in Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Youth, 2011-2020. JAMA. 2023;329(17):1469-1477. doi:10.1001/jama.2023.4809
AAP, AACAP, CHA. A declaration from the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association. Updated October 10, 2021. Accessed May 1, 2023. https://www.aap.org/en/advocacy/child-and-adolescent-healthy-mental-development/aap-aacap-cha-declaration-of-a-national-emergency-in-child-and-adolescent-mental-health/ on
Johansen ME. Psychiatric Medication Users by Age and Sex in the United States, 1999-2018. J Am Board Fam Med. 2021;34(4):732-740. doi:10.3122/jabfm.2021.04.200596
Fadaei A. An investigation into the association between suicide mortality rate and lithium levels in potable water: a review study. Int Clin Psychopharmacol. 2023;38(2):73-80. doi:10.1097/YIC.0000000000000432
Donegan JJ, Nemeroff CB. Suicide and Inflammation. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2023;1411:379-404. doi:10.1007/978-981-19-7376-5_17
Miola A, Dal Porto V, Tadmor T, et al. Increased C-reactive protein concentration and suicidal behavior in people with psychiatric disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2021;144(6):537-552. doi:10.1111/acps.13351
Li H, Zhang X, Sun Q, Zou R, Li Z, Liu S. Association between serum lipid concentrations and attempted suicide in patients with major depressive disorder: A meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2020;15(12):e0243847. Published 2020 Dec 10. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0243847