Communication Strategies are Key to Addressing Suicide Prevalence Crisis


Communication Strategies are Key to Addressing Suicide Prevalence Crisis

As professional communicators, we understand and respect the tremendous power of insightful messaging and communication strategy to affect weighty societal problems – including suicide, which claimed 50,000 lives last year. That tragic figure is the highest number ever recorded, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

September is designated as Suicide Prevention Month, an apt time to raise our voices and consider how the messages we share about suicide can influence behavior. And while this special one-month focus is welcome, effective and sustained messaging about suicide prevention must be an ongoing, year-round effort. In fact, according to a recent Harris poll, 81% of Americans say that in the wake of the COVID pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make suicide a national priority.

So how can the tools of communication help? First, awareness.

A recent Sachs Media Breakthrough Research survey found that, when given a list of options, only 27% of Floridians could accurately identify 988 as the correct number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Since its July 2022 launch, 988 has served as a powerful new national tool, aimed at reducing reliance on law enforcement or emergency departments to respond to mental health crises by connecting callers with local crisis counselors.

The deficit of 988 awareness to date may have been intentional to make sure the new system wasn’t overwhelmed with calls. In fact, none of the nearly $1 billion in federal funding for the Lifeline was earmarked for the kind of public relations campaign that could effectively drive public awareness. But with more than a year of experience under its belt, it’s time to get the word out.

Second, insightful communication strategy can also support suicide prevention through messaging that’s informed by research and tailored for target audiences.

The National Alliance for Suicide Prevention offers a 988 messaging framework that emphasizes strategic, safe, and positive messages. These evidence-based guidelines can help overcome messaging challenges like how to highlight the prevalence of the problem without normalizing suicide as a response.

Consider that our Sachs Media Breakthrough Research survey found that almost 1 in 3 Floridians (31%) acknowledge having contemplated suicide at some point in their lives.

While that statistic is alarming and demonstrates that the problem is widespread, it’s important to include the context that only 6% of those who contemplated suicide had considered it; only 3% had actually attempted suicide, another 2% had seriously considered it without attempting (while 1% considered it, but not very seriously).

In other words, if you experience suicidal thoughts, you’re not alone – many others have had those urges without acting on them. This can be paired with a hopeful message that help is available and with specific guidance about where to get it.

According to our survey, 46% of Floridians lacked confidence that they know where to turn or reach out for help if they or someone they know felt suicidal. This finding points to a critical gap in knowledge about support systems and resources, especially among older individuals and men.

Nuanced messaging can also help reduce the stigma that so often inhibits people who are having suicidal thoughts from reaching out for help. Identifying someone as “living with a mental illness” or “experiencing a mental health crisis” is better than “suffering from a mental illness” or, worse, “the mentally ill” – a term that establishes mental illness as a person’s entire identity.

As communicators, we know that effective communication campaigns tailor messaging, outreach strategies, channels, and messengers for different audiences.

Our research suggests that young people are one demographic that warrants particular focus. Almost two-thirds (64%) of Floridians under the age of 35 report having contemplated suicide – more than twice the rate of all Floridians. A critical message for this audience may be that 988 allows callers to connect to a mental health counselor in a variety of ways, including text or chat, which may be preferred by younger callers.

As a firm with a long history of building successful behavioral and mental health campaigns for clients like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Florida Association for Behavior Analysis, we know the power of communication to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and deliver motivating, life-saving messages.

Now is the moment for the Sunshine State to live up to its name and shed light on the problem of rising suicide rates – in ways that actually influence behaviors and save lives. Suicide prevention cannot be limited to a single month or week; it demands our constant attention and commitment. Together, across private and public organizations, we can make a meaningful difference by working and investing to save lives and support those in need.