September is National Suicide Awareness Month. Since my mom, an Air Force veteran and the only parent who was present in my life, died by suicide in March 2018, I’ve spent the past five years wondering what more I could have done, thinking about the clues that were missed and the opportunities lost. I’m still learning to accept that there are questions that will never be answered.

After beginning my role earlier this year as Maryland’s secretary of veterans affairs, I began to see my mom’s death from a new perspective — not just as her only child, but as a policymaker charged with advocating for other at-risk veterans. What I’ve learned is this: Suicide is not just about the mental health challenges faced by the person who takes their own life, and suicide can be prevented with improved policies and public health systems.

According to the Maryland Department of Health, 1 out of every 6 people who die by suicide are veterans. When I read their names and hear about their stories, I can’t help but think of my mom. Like her, these veterans have left behind many broken-hearted loved ones working to pick up the pieces.

Two decades ago, when National Suicide Prevention Month began, the rate of death by suicide was 30% lower than it is today. Last year, it rose to be the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. Policymakers must recognize and prioritize the urgency of the suicide epidemic.

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One way that states can help is to expand local capacity for 988, the nation’s suicide and crisis lifeline. In its first year, 988 heard from nearly 5 million new contacts, an increase of 33% over the prior year.

States need to invest in training more phone operators and providing mobile response teams with the tools they need to respond in person, if necessary. Improved technology will also be key to delivering life-saving services at scale. Maryland has taken 988 infrastructure seriously, establishing a 988 trust fund and allocating $17.5 million over two years to support people in crisis.

States can also commit to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families. This initiative, in which Maryland has been a participant since 2020, identifies gaps in mental health services and develops strategic plans to bolster the well-being of military and veteran communities.

There’s more work to do, but our goal as policymakers should be to ensure fewer people have to experience what I did. Policy changes take time, however, and people are in crisis now.

As I’ve worked to better understand suicide since my mom’s passing, I’ve come to learn there are things we can all do to help the people in urgent need around us.

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First, listen to what’s going on and don’t be afraid to ask: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” By prompting someone directly and giving them the space to share their feelings, you can offer relief.

Second, educate yourself on the signs of suicidal ideation. Recognizing drastic mood changes, withdrawal from loved ones or expressing feelings of hopelessness can allow for timely intervention.

Third, ask the person in crisis if they’re comfortable with your help finding therapists, psychiatrists or crisis help lines. If they say yes, offer well-researched suggestions.

No one should lose a loved one to suicide. If we have any chance of ending this public health crisis, policymakers will need to make systemwide reforms while everyday citizens provide support to the people they love.

I’m committed to doing my best in both capacities — as Maryland secretary of veterans affairs and as the surviving son of a mom who died by suicide. I know this work would make her proud.

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Anthony Woods is Maryland’s secretary of veterans affairs.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to contact the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

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