Over the last decade, the skydiving community has pushed its fatality rates to record lows. During the 1970s, an average of one death occurred per 20,000 jumps. Each following decade, the rate has fallen, with an average death rate of one per 155,072 jumps throughout the 2010s. The best year by far was 2018, with one fatality per 246,153 skydives.
This improvement is largely attributed to advancements in equipment, training and safety standards. However, to continue the drive to make our sport safer, we need to expand our safety culture to include outlying factors that have been relatively small contributors in the past. Pre-existing medical conditions have been one such small but significant contributor to skydiving fatalities. This category of deaths is designated “medical problems,” and is divided into two subgroups, “physical illness” and “mental illness.”
Over the last 20 years, 39 skydiving fatalities representing 2.6 percent of deaths occurred where the primary contributing factor was a pre-existing medical condition. Twelve of those fell in the mental-illness subgroup. Over the decades, lowering fatalities have caused these outliers to become more significant in our year-end totals. For example, the one skydiving suicide of 2018 represented 7.7 percent of the year-end totals.
How Can We, as a Community, Help?
The first words out of most skydivers’ mouths when the subject of a skydiving suicide comes up are, “I would never do that to a sport I love so much,” usually followed by, “How could they?” People often feel that suicide is a selfish act. It’s understandable to feel this way, but it does a disservice to those considering suicide and minimizes their pain.
This pain can become so difficult to cope with that contemplating even one more day seems unbearable. Those considering suicide may also feel they’ve become a burden. In their eyes, suicide may feel like a selfless act that will spare others from dealing with them.
Jumping—usually from a structure—accounts for 5.8 percent of all suicides in the United States, and has an 85 percent success rate, which is similar to suicide by firearm. Suicide attempts by all other means result in death less than five percent of the time. These statistics are even more tragic because 70 percent of first-time attempters had no further attempts, and of those that did reattempt, only 10 percent eventually died from suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a leader in suicide prevention and mental health crisis care that operates a national network of over 170 crisis centers, offers the following advice:
“Suicide is not inevitable for anyone. By starting the conversation, providing support, and directing help to those who need it, we can prevent suicides and save lives.
“Some warning signs may help you determine if someone close to you is at risk for suicide, especially if the behavior is new, has increased or seems related to a painful event, loss or change:
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
- Looking for a way to kill themselves
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Extreme mood swings”
An acute sense of awareness is the linchpin of a good skydiver, but that should not be limited to time spent in the sky. Staying aware of our own mental health and, if necessary, utilizing resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline—(800) 273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.com—is important, and allows us to continue enjoying the sport we love. Each of us can also be a resource for others; it never hurts to reach out and check on a buddy. Our goal is to drop the fatality rate to zero. Every skydiver can help.
Ron Bell | D-26863
USPA Director of Safety and Training