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Surgeon General Dr. David Satcher on the National Suicide Prevention Strategy

Dr. David Satcher
Dr. David Satcher  

(CNN) -- Dr. David Satcher is the Surgeon General of the United States, having begun his term in February 1998. He also serves as the Assistant Secretary for Health. Prior to these positions, Dr. Satcher was appointed by President Clinton in 1993 as Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. From 1982 to 1993 Dr. Satcher was president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Dr. David Satcher: Hello, I'm Surgeon General David Satcher, and it's a pleasure to be here to discuss the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.

CNN Moderator: Is suicide a growing problem?

CMHS National Strategy for Suicide Prevention

Dr. David Satcher: Well, yes and no. The rate of suicide has been fairly stable at about 10 to 11 per 100,000 people. I think what we're especially concerned about is the growing rate among young people and the fact that suicide has tripled among adolescents since 1952. Just in the last 20 years or so, we've seen a doubling of suicide in the 10-14-year-old age group. Likewise, among African American males between 15 and 19, suicide has doubled since 1980, according to recent CDC reports.

Question from chat room: How can we increase physicians' awareness of screening for depression and other mental health illnesses?

Dr. David Satcher: I think it obviously has to begin with our training programs for medical professions. But we're trying to catch up, so we're trying to get training included as part of continuing education programs. We're very pleased with the response and the cooperation that we're getting from primary care organizations. I especially want to recognize the support of the Carter Center in Atlanta for their help in this regard. We've just learned that our national physician assistant organization has made adolescent suicide a priority for the next year. All of these efforts are critical and will help reduce the suicide rate.


CNN Moderator: What can be done to reduce the stigma related with suicide?

Dr. David Satcher: The stigma related to suicide is closely related to the stigma related to mental health problems. We have made some progress in this area, but we must continue the effort. We want more people to do what Tipper Gore did and come out to discuss their own treatment for depression and how they can return to productive lives and positive relationships.

The teenager on our panel today, Maggie Ming, talked about how she had been personally helped by programs targeting teenagers at risk for suicide in the schools. These kinds of efforts will all continue to reduce the stigma and discrimination against mental illness and against suicidal ideation. But whether we're dealing with cancer, HIV/AIDS, or with mental illness, it is usually the sense of hopelessness that feeds stigma. So, a major message here is that mental health problems are treatable and suicide is preventable.

Question from chat room: What role do you think public schools can play in preventing suicides by young people?

Dr. David Satcher: We believe that public schools can begin by educating teachers, administrators and other staff people about the nature of mental health problems among young people and the tremendous opportunity for intervention. There must also be programs targeted to the students themselves and run by the students themselves, to increase the awareness of mental health problems, of depression, of suicidal ideation, and to emphasize opportunities for intervention.

Question from chat room: Dr. Satcher, have the new anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs had any impact on the number of reported suicides?

Dr. David Satcher: It is still very early, but there are studies showing that people, especially with persons suffering from bipolar disorders -- with intermittent periods of depression and mania -- have been helped by treatment with drugs such as lithium, and suicide has been reduced with the populations under study. By the same token, I think it's important, as we pointed out today, that comprehensive programs targeting large populations, such as the one implemented by the Air Force, have been shown to reduce suicide in those populations. In the case of the Air Force, over the last five years, suicide has been reduced by almost one-half in a population of almost a half-million people. But, it is important that these studies continue, and that we better document the impact of prevention and treatment in reducing suicide.

CNN Moderator: How does suicide impact the nation's health care system?

Dr. David Satcher: Suicide is a public health problem, in that it not only impacts the 30,000 or more people who take their own lives every year and the 650,000 or more who attempt suicide, and the large number of survivors who are left confused and distraught, but our health care system is also impacted by all the associated medical problems. We especially need better-trained persons on the front line of our health care system to ensure earlier recognition of depression and suicidal ideation and appropriate diagnosis, management and intervention. But without question, the burden of disease and disability caused by mental health problems ranks second only to cardiovascular disease in this country and in other industrialized countries.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Dr. David Satcher: I think it's a great day because the release of the National Strategy represents a tremendous partnership among people throughout this country not only in the development of this strategy, but in the commitment to move forward together to implement programs in communities throughout this country. As Dr. Moritsugu and Jerry Weyrauch said in our press conference, the process itself in developing this strategy speaks volumes about the hope that people will continue to work together in the future to implement programs.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Dr. David Satcher: Good bye. We look forward to continuing this kind of dialogue across this country.

Dr. David Satcher joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, D.C. and used a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Wednesday, May 02, 2001 at 11:30 a.m. EDT.

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