U.S. suicide prevention programs say more funding needed

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Efforts to fight suicide in the United States are desperate for additional funding, suicide-prevention experts said, following this week's high profile deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and new statistics showing a growing problem.

Federal funding for suicide trailed far behind other major public health issues, even though it is the 10th-leading cause of death among Americans, claiming one person every 12 minutes, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Our crisis centers across the country are chronically underfunded," said John Draper, executive director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which can be reached at +1-800-273-TALK and provides free support 24 hours a day.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) provided about $35 million in 2017 to fund research into "suicide prevention," with another $68 million devoted to the category of "suicide," according to the agency's statistics.

There were 45,000 U.S. suicides in 2016. In comparison, alcoholism, which killed an estimated 65,000 Americans in 2015, saw $500 million in funded research last year.

Private charities, which help sustain suicide prevention hotlines, also have a harder time raising funds than those that tackle some other health issues, experts said.

"Look at breast cancer. More people will die by suicide than breast cancer this year," said Dan Reidenberg, executive director of the nonprofit Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.

Almost $690 million was spent on breast cancer research last year, according to NIH statistics.

The United States has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, according to World Health Organization data. In 2015, the United States had a rate of 15.3 suicides per 100,000 people, well above the global average of 10.6 per 100,000, according to WHO.

Bourdain, a chef and host of CNN's "Parts Unknown" food-and-travel show, died of an apparent suicide on Friday in a French hotel. Spade, a fashion designer known for her popular handbags, was found dead in her apartment on Tuesday after what her husband described as a long battle with depression.

Scientists are making progress in identifying ways of predicting suicide risk more precisely, including biomarkers that could indicate whether someone is more likely to attempt it, said Jane Pearson, chairwoman of the National Institute of Mental Health's suicide research consortium.

Undiagnosed mental health problems, stresses such as loss of a job or a loved one, relationship problems, financial difficulties and physical problems can contribute to suicide, experts said.

"It's usually a confluence of factors," said Jerry Reed, a member of the executive committee of the Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. "We have to be mindful of the whole spectrum."

Research has shown that direct intervention, much like the use of suicide hotlines, can help people contemplating suicide to change their minds, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's Draper said.

The key is to think of suicide as a public health issue, much like diseases such as AIDS or cancer, said Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

While tragic, the deaths of Spade and Bourdain could help spread the message that suicides can be prevented, experts said.

"It definitely is a teachable moment," Pearson said

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)