A new national survey suggests attitudes about mental health and suicide are shifting in the U.S., although obstacles to treatment remain.
In the online poll, nine out of ten Americans said their mental health was just as important as their physical health. An even higher percentage of respondents said suicide was at least sometimes preventable, and that they would try to assist a loved one with suicidal thoughts.
“Many of the findings actually point to something very encouraging,” said Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her organization, along with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, commissioned a Harris Poll of about 2,000 American adults to learn more about people’s knowledge and opinions of suicide and mental health.
“Many people fully understand that suicide has its main risk factors couched very squarely in mental health issues like depression and bipolar disorder,” Moutier said. In the past, she said, individual life events such as a financial crisis or divorce were seen as more critical.
More than a third of those polled said seeking mental health services was a sign of strength.
But stigma remains. Nearly 40 percent of those surveyed viewed suicide as a selfish act.
Young adults aged 18 to 34, however, were more likely to carry positive views.
“This shift is very important,” said Carolina Hausmann-Stabile, a suicide researcher with Temple University who was not involved with the survey. “As this group grows older they [might] maintain this perspective and therefore they might be able to seek services when they need to.”
Men were less likely than women to say they would reach out to others if contemplating suicide, and were also less likely to have received mental health treatment, consistent with previous research.
“We have more work to do when it comes to, in particular, how we are able to help our men in our communities be able to speak about the concerns that they’re having when their mental health is deteriorating,” said Moutier.
Even if attitudes about mental health are improving, the poll results indicate getting treatment is still a struggle. Thirty percent of respondents said people don’t know where to look to find services, and 43 percent said it was something most people couldn’t afford.
“I think the perception that respondents in this survey had were correct,” said Hausmann-Stabile. “Mental health services are hard to reach. Especially here in Philadelphia, you see that there are very limited spots available; waiting lists are very long. So people are aware of the reality.”
WHYY’s Maiken Scott contributed reporting to this story.