“While Rome Burns”

A leading psychiatrist says the 24 percent increase in the U.S. suicide rate is “shocking” and “chilling,” and is blasting the government for failing to respond to America’s mental healthcare crisis as a national emergency.

Jeffrey Lieberman sounds his alarm in a commentary published on May 13 by Medscape called “While Rome Burns: Addressing Rising Suicide Rates.” He is chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University, and director of the Department of Psychiatry at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. His commentary was prompted by a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics showing spikes in suicide rates between 1999 and 2014.


Read the full text and watch a video of his remarks here.

Extracts of Lieberman’s commentary:

The death rate by suicide and by other forms of passive self-destructive behavior are all related to mental disorders. We know that 90 percent of individuals who take their life by suicide have pre-existing mental disorders and that major causes or antecedents are mood disorders, psychosis, posttraumatic stress disorder, or substance abuse. This is a problem that has long been known and has suffered from inadequate attention, stigma, and underfunding (both in terms of clinical care services as well as biomedical research). And this problem continues to worsen, as reflected by the shocking statistics, with continued inactivity on the part of government policies, legislation, and funding priorities.

… [I]f you look at the response in terms of any type of action being taken from a policy or healthcare initiative standpoint, nothing is being done. To put this into context economically, these are major public health problems, the most egregious manifestations of which are these recent statistics on suicide and declining longevity in that age group due to self-harming behaviors related to mental disorders. Yet, the amount of money that is being spent on studying them has not changed, and it is an inadequate amount in terms of the overall federal budget.

It’s hard to understand why these rates, which are really the tips of the iceberg of an overall chronically failed mental healthcare policy in this country, have not risen to the level of a national emergency, like Zika virus, Ebola, or AIDS years before.

I can only think that the reason is that there is a stigma attached to mental illness. It relates to drug abuse and the conflation of things that are not medical conditions and may relate to failings in moral character or behaviors that are sinful. I’m speculating egregiously, but I just can’t understand the basis for viewing these statistics with dismay, shock, and concern and then having inaction. We’ve seen this with other cases before. We’ve seen it with civilian massacres and mass violent incidents, which usually result in cries of rage and indignation and a rush to do something to not let this happen again, and then devolve into partisan political arguments and parochial concerns, finally leading to nothing being done.

I urge you to not just read up on these latest developments but to express your concern in a way that might be influential, either through the media, to your governmental representatives, or in any way that you can, so that services and funding priorities are brought in line with these public health concerns.