Suicide is a public health concern that cannot be ignored
Suicide is a public health concern that cannot be ignored. Over 41,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States; it is the 10th leading cause of death overall. Suicide is tragic. But it is often preventable. Knowing the risk factors for suicide and who is at risk can help reduce the suicide rate.
Who is at risk for suicide?
Suicide does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities can be at risk for suicide. But people most at risk tend to share certain characteristics. The main risk factors for suicide are:
- Depression, other mental disorders, or substance abuse disorder
- A prior suicide attempt
- Family history of a mental disorder or substance abuse
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
- Having guns or other firearms in the home
- Incarceration, being in prison or jail
The risk for suicidal behavior is complex. Research suggests that people who attempt suicide differ from others in many aspects of how they think, react to events, and make decisions. There are differences in aspects of memory, attention, planning, and emotion, for example. These differences often occur along with disorders like depression, substance use, anxiety, and psychosis. Sometimes suicidal behavior is triggered by events such as personal loss or violence.
In order to be able to detect those at risk and prevent suicide, it is crucial that we understand the role of both long-term factors—such as experiences in childhood—and more immediate factors like mental health and recent life events.
Many people have some of these risk factors but do not attempt suicide. Suicide is not a normal response to stress. It is however, a sign of extreme distress, not a harmless bid for attention.
Children and young people are at risk for suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 34.
Older adults are at risk for suicide, too. While older adults were the demographic group with the highest suicide rates for decades, suicide rates for middle aged adults have increased to comparable levels (ages 24-62). Among those age 65+, white males comprise over 80% of all late life suicides.
Effective suicide prevention is based on sound research. Programs that work take into account people's risk factors and promote interventions that are appropriate to specific groups of people. For example, research has shown that mental disorders depression in particular plays a large role in suicide, and substance abuse disorders are risk factors for suicide. Therefore, many programs focus on treating these disorders in addition to addressing suicide risk specifically.
Psychotherapy, or "talk therapy," can effectively reduce suicide risk. One type is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help people learn new ways of dealing with stressful experiences by training them to consider alternative actions when thoughts of suicide arise.
Another type of psychotherapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has been shown to reduce the rate of suicide among people with borderline personality disorder, a serious mental illness characterized by unstable moods, relationships, self-image, and behavior. A therapist trained in DBT helps a person recognize when his or her feelings or actions are disruptive or unhealthy, and teaches the skills needed to deal better with upsetting situations.
Medications may also help; promising medications and psychosocial treatments for suicidal people are being tested.
What do we need to do now? We need to be able to talk about it.
If You Are In Crisis
Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential. www.SuicidePreventionLifeline.org
(National Institute of Mental Health; http://www.nimh.nih.gov)