There was a slight increase in suicides in Massachusetts last year, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's the first increase in suicides in the state in four years, and it comes as suicides nationally reach an all-time high.
Preliminary CDC data show 626 people died by suicide in Massachusetts. That's up 3.6% from 2021. Suicides had declined each year starting in 2019, after reaching a peak of 740 in 2018.
Kelley Cunningham, who oversees suicide prevention for the the state's Department of Public Health, expressed concern that suicides are increasing post-pandemic much like they do in the spring of a typical year. Spring increases are attributed to people with depression and anxiety struggling while they watch others enjoy a new lease on life the season brings.
Cunningham said the pandemic had some protective factors, because the message was that everyone was in it together.
"And now, we're out of that," Cunningham said. "It went back to status quo, which was one of the things I was really afraid of ... how can we keep that message going, so people know that they are not alone — that there are people out there feeling like they do and there are places that you can go."
Those resources people can turn to include the national 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. The state helps to fund the five call centers in Massachusetts that receive calls and texts from the lifeline. In the new state budget that was signed into law last week, the centers were funded at approximately the same level as last year — about $1 million each — according to Cunningham.
While 988 is for people to talk with someone for support if they or someone they know is in mental health crisis, the state's new behavioral health help line connects people to clinical help. Cunningham said she wanted to make sure people understand the difference between the two.
The state also rolled out a new network of community behavioral health centers this year, which are meant to provide both urgent and on-going mental health care.
Nationally, there was an 8% drop in suicides among people 10 to 24 years old, according to the preliminary data. Suicide has long been a leading cause of death for young people. The encouraging news comes as there was a concerning increase of 8% in suicides among people aged 65 and older.
Cunningham said she believes the focus on youth mental health during the pandemic — in programs, policies and public conversation — had an impact. She and a local suicide prevention advocate said they're encouraged by young people themselves talking about mental health.
"Kids, adolescents, young adults do a much better job of openly and loudly talking about their emotional health than we do as adults," said Annemarie Matulis, director of the Bristol County Suicide Prevention Coalition. She also sits on the executive committee for the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention and is co-founder of the nonprofit A Voice at the Table.
Matulis said more education is needed in the community so that young people learn how to talk with each other effectively in cases of mental health crisis and how to help connect each other with resources.
When it comes to senior citizens, Matulis said she's concerned about severe isolation continuing to contribute to suicide.
There is DPH-funded suicide prevention programming around the state, including programs run by 10 regional suicide prevention coalitions. Cunningham said people can sign up to take a course offered by the state to become a suicide prevention trainer. In the meantime, she encourages people in crisis to reach out for help.
"The state is really working hard to make sure that we have the support systems in place to help each other," she said. "And that is something that we can all do. We don't have to be a mental health clinician to help somebody who is struggling."