AZ's suicide rate is alarmingly high. What mental health professionals say needs to be improved

By Ainsley Ryan
Published: Wednesday, August 10, 2022 - 4:46am
Updated: Friday, August 26, 2022 - 10:16am

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Multiple areas of suicide prevention need to be improved, Arizona mental health professionals say.

The suicide rate steadily increased over the decade from 2009 to 2019, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services. And in 2019, the state’s  suicide rate was 36% above the nation’s. Suicide is a serious issue that affects a many people, especially males, as their death rate was 3.6 times that of females that year. 

Dr. Carol Olson, chair of psychiatry for Valleywise Health, says multiple areas of suicide prevention need to be improved. 

“One is identifying people who are experiencing the type of mental health conditions that can result in suicide and making sure that they are getting appropriate and timely treatment," Olson said. 

People must see a mental health professional, typically as soon as possible, to receive a diagnosis and follow a treatment plan. But according to Kelli Donley Williams, Arizona’s previous state suicide prevention specialist, there is a shortage of mental health professionals to provide proper care. 

“There are not enough people in our workforce, in Arizona working in behavioral health, to meet the needs of Arizonans who are dealing with behavioral health crises. And that directly leads to the state suicide rate and the risk for individuals dying by suicide,” Williams explained.

Age-adjusted mortality rates for suicide by gender and year: Arizona, 2009-2019
Arizona Department of Health Services

That shortage is at the core of other problems as well. In addition to the lack of appropriate and timely treatment, there are not enough care centers because they can’t be staffed. People may have to travel farther to receive care or they may not be able to receive it at all if they don’t have the ability to travel.

One reason for the shortage is low wages, says Beth Brady of Solari Crisis and Human Services. 

“Historically, the behavioral health, mental health system has just been chronically underfunded, which leads to lower wages — really high demand for professionals who are in the field — whether that’s high caseloads or working a lot of additional hours," Brady said. 

To address suicide prevention, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has co-sponsored a bill that would provide money to identify and treat individuals at risk of suicide. It would also allocate funding to hire mental health professionals. By addressing these key issues, the bill could play a role in preventing suicide in Arizona if it becomes law. 

Age-adjusted suicide mortality ratesa , Arizona versus United States, 2009-2019
Arizona Department of Health Services

Brady says that the new national mental health hotline number, 988, will also help improve suicide prevention by providing immediate emergency help.

“A big role of what the 988 specialists do is assess the situation and assess what the person is experiencing … and based on that assessment, they can better help the person find the right services for the situation they are experiencing," Brady said. 

In addition to potential legislation and a new emergency hotline, people can help prevent suicide in their daily lives. Olson says thoughts about suicide are not uncommon, and discussing them should be normalized. She adds, it’s important to ask others how they’re feeling and check on their mental health. 

Age-adjusted mortality rates of Male suicide by county of residence: Arizona, 2019
Arizona Department of Health Services

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988 (en Español: 988, prensa 2; for the deaf or hard of hearing, use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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