January 11, 2022

The Cost of a Life…and a Need for More Suicide Prevention Research

As so many of us know all too well, the costs of suicide are immeasurable, extending beyond the unfathomable loss of an individual to considerable lifelong impacts on family, friends, coworkers, communities, and society.

As this recent report on the Economic Cost of Injury from the CDC highlights, losses associated with suicide are also economic, costly, and preventable. Ranking tenth in the leading causes of death in the US, more than 47,000 suicides occurred in 2019.

In total, the costs and losses of unintentional and violence-related injuries and deaths (including suicide, homicide, overdoses, motor vehicle crashes, and falls) were estimated at $4.2 trillion. This number reflects the CDC’s calculated estimates of costs for medical care, work loss, value of statistical life, and loss of quality of life.

For lives lost to suicide, the CDC estimated a 2019 cost to society exceeding $463 billion. In addition, more than 460,000 cases of self harm (notably almost ten times the number of deaths) treated in emergency departments were estimated to have an economic cost exceeding $26 billion. In reality, total instances of self-harm and associated costs are higher than these estimates, since suicide attempts and self-harm treated in other medical facilities are not included in this number. Similarly, stigma and uncertainty about intent likely result in lower reporting of suicides.

For obvious economic as well as societal concerns, significant funding for research in the prevention of suicidal behaviors is warranted. However, as this graph reveals, in 2017 suicide research represented the lowest level of National Institutes of Health spending relative to annual deaths nearing 50,000 or more in the US. NIH suicide research is on par with spending on prescription drug abuse, another ‘disease of despair.’ At JKBF, we believe a deeper and a broader research agenda for suicide prevention, with greater investigation of biological contributors, could reveal a broader array of approaches to reducing suffering and loss of life. Furthermore, consideration and a deeper understanding of the overlaps in physical and mental health concerns are likely to result in findings that have positive impact on outcomes in other disease conditions.

In light of the many costs of suicide, this article outlining debate around how to pay for the soon-to-be-introduced 988 hotline represents a frustrating conversation. In an effort to bring this valuable streamlined service online, federal funding for the implementation of 988 through Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has recently been announced. Even as we need more research to find ways to promote resilience and reduce suffering, we already know that the ability to respond appropriately in a crisis saves lives.

According to a 2020 SAMHSA survey, within the past year roughly 5% of US adults and 12% of adolescents had serious thoughts of suicide. At some point in our lives, we all experience trauma, loss, shock, or uncertainty. If this were your crisis, or your loved one’s crisis, what would well-researched intervention strategies and access to emergency services be worth to you? We need more research so that we have an array of tools to promote resilience, avoid and address crisis, and safe lives.