While the word crisis may bring to mind a single, triggering incident, a crisis can also take the form of a disturbing trend, whether an uptick in drunk driving, a failure to recycle properly or an increase in suicide among a specific population.
As professional communicators, we understand and respect the tremendous power of insightful messaging and communications strategies 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.
And while months of awareness can prompt a temporary spike in focus, combating a societal crisis requires effective and sustained messaging that’s part of an ongoing, year-round effort. Americans agree: According to a recent Harris poll, 81 percent of Americans say that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make suicide a national priority.
So, how can communications help? First, by creating awareness.
Let’s look at Florida, which often serves as a bellwether for the nation. A recent Sachs Media Breakthrough Research survey found that, when given a list of options, only 27 percent 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.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Jan. '24 Crisis Communications & PR Buyer's Guide Magazine
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Second, an insightful communications 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 one in three Floridians (31 percent) 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 six percent of those who contemplated suicide had considered it. Only three percent had actually attempted suicide, another two percent had seriously considered it without attempting and one percent considered it, but not 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 as well as specific guidance about where to get it.
According to our survey, 46 percent of Floridians lacked the 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.
Young people have been one demographic focus in recent years, as federal data documented growing suicide rates among those 35 and younger. Our survey found almost two-thirds (64 percent) 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 with a mental health counselor in a variety of ways, including text or chat, which may be preferred by younger callers.
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control document a new trend: A growing number of suicides among older adults, which pushed the nation’s overall suicide rate to a historic high last year. The risk was particularly high among elderly men 75 and over, whose rate of suicide was double that of young males, ages 15 to 24.
This is where specific research can provide a deep dive into this demographic that may identify risk factors and help unlock strategies and messages to counteract the rise in suicide among older males, even as we tailor messages and outreach strategies for other demographics.
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.
Suicide is a national crisis, but it’s a crisis that can be mitigated by smart, sustained and strategic communications efforts. Beginning with research to understand drivers of behavior, to segmenting target audiences and tailoring messages and outreach strategies to move them, communications is a crisis prevention strategy with great potential to save lives.
Suicide prevention can’t be limited to a single month or week; it demands our constant attention and commitment. And it’s not only within the purview of behavioral health providers, government agencies or non-profit organizations—communications professionals can play a big role in addressing and correcting this crisis as well.
Michelle Ubben is President and CEO of Sachs Media.