Compared to many other threats to our health and safety, suicide often goes overlooked and undiscussed. As a result, you might think that suicide is rare, or that only a few people are at risk, or that nothing can be done to prevent a suicide. But none of these are true.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was the 10th most common cause of death in America in 2011. That year, nearly 40,000 Americans committed suicide – in other words, roughly five people took their lives every hour. Statistics show that people are more likely to kill themselves than to be killed by someone else. This is true for kids ages 10 to 17, for senior citizens, and for nearly every age group in between, with young adults as the exception.
Experts are trying to get more people to talk about suicide by raising awareness with events like National Suicide Prevention Week, which is held in early September. Their message is this: Certain factors put some people at especially high risk of self-harm, and people often show warning signs before they take their lives. By being aware of and watching for these warning signs and risk factors, you can help protect yourself and your loved ones from suicide.
Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Suicide
Not everyone who’s feeling bad — either because of a mental health problem or other life difficulty — will commit suicide. But if any of these issues affect you or a loved one, be aware that they can increase the risk of suicide:
- Depression and bipolar disorder. According to an article published in the journal Current Psychiatry Reports in December 2012, more than half of people with clinical depression think about killing themselves. These thoughts are also very common in people with bipolar disorder. Research by the World Health Organization (WHO) has found that an estimated 4 percent of people with mood disorders — which include bipolar disorder, major depression, and long-running mild depression — commit suicide.
- Anxiety. People with anxiety disorders, especially panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, are more likely to think about suicide or try to kill themselves. However, anxiety often goes hand-in-hand with depression or substance abuse. These issues could be responsible for the extra risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors rather than the anxiety.
- Schizophrenia. People with this form of mental illness appear to have about a 5 percent chance of committing suicide at some point during their lifetime. A much higher number of people with schizophrenia attempt suicide. When they take their life, it’s often early in the course of the disease.
- Substance abuse. People who misuse drugs have a higher risk of suicide. Alcohol has an especially strong relationship with suicidal behavior. One CDC study found that one-third of people who committed suicide had alcohol in their system when they died. About one in five had taken opiates, including heroin or prescription pain medication.
- Family history. If a family member has committed suicide, this puts you at greater risk of also taking your life. WHO experts have suggested several reasons why a family history of suicide raises your risk. These include:
- Upsetting emotions that you feel over the death of your loved one, such as stress, shame, anger and grief
- Loss of support and other changes in your family
- Inherited qualities that are linked to suicide, such as aggression or impulsiveness
- Past trauma. Going through traumatic events, especially during childhood, raises your risk of suicide or attempted suicide. These types of trauma include:
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Violence in your family
- Being bullied
- Physical illness. Having a medical problem that causes chronic pain can double or triple your risk of suicidal behaviors. Illnesses that cause disability or distress can also push you closer to suicide.
- Certain personality traits. Among people with major depression, those who attempt suicide tend to act more on impulse or behave aggressively.
- Hardships in life. Difficulties in life may lead you to consider suicide or even attempt it. These sorts of problems can include:
- Going to jail or prison
- Legal troubles
- Job loss
- Financial strain
- Trouble at school or work
- Losing your home
- Going through a natural disaster or war
Warning Signs May Point to a Suicide Attempt
In some cases, people suddenly act on a suicidal impulse and their death comes as a surprise to the people around them. But most often, people show warning signs before they take their lives, such as:
- Previous suicide attempts. Usually, people who attempt suicide don’t actually die. In fact, for every 26 attempts at suicide, only one person ends his or her life. However, people who’ve attempted suicide once are at much higher risk of trying again. In fact, “a prior suicide attempt is the single most important predictor of death by suicide in the general population,” WHO says.
- References to death or dying. People may talk about suicide or that they wish they were dead before making a suicide attempt.
- Sleep changes. In the time leading up to a suicide attempt, people may have trouble sleeping. On the other hand, they may also sleep more than normal.
- Mood swings and changes in behavior. People moving closer to suicide may seem angry or restless. They may act in ways that threaten their safety. They might drink more or use drugs more frequently. In addition, they may feel hopeless or trapped in a bad situation with no options for fixing it. They might also give away possessions they care about and make a point to say goodbye to friends and loved ones.
How to Help Yourself or a Loved One Considering Suicide
If you’re thinking about ending your life, call your health care professional or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. If your feelings are urgent, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately. If you suspect that someone else is thinking about suicide based on warning signs or risk factors:
- Take time to listen and show that you care.
- Allow the person to talk openly about their feelings.
- Avoid leaving the person alone.
- Urge the person to seek help, whether from a health care professional or hospital or by calling 911.
- If possible, remove items that could be used for committing suicide, such as firearms, poisons and medications, or other drugs.