Understanding Suicide: Risk Factors, Prevention, and How to Get Help | Learn More

Dr. Serenity
April 12, 2023

Understanding Suicide: Risk Factors, Prevention, and How to Get Help

Learn about the complexity of suicide, including its significant economic and human costs. Suicide rates have increased by 33% between 1999 and 2019, making it a public health crisis. While mental health conditions can increase the risk of suicide, it is rarely caused by one thing alone. Identifying risk factors and warning signs can help identify those in need of extra support, but diagnosing suicide risk is not always straightforward.


Understanding Suicidal Behavior: Terminology and Definitions

Suicide is a complex issue that can manifest in different ways, making it difficult to identify and prevent. To better understand suicidal behavior, it’s important to define the terminology used when discussing this topic. The following definitions are recommended to avoid confusion and increase clarity:

  • Self-Directed Violence: Behavior aimed at oneself that intentionally results in harm or injury.
  • Nonsuicidal Self-Directed Violence: Behavior aimed at oneself that results in harm or injury, but without explicit or implicit suicidal intent.
  • Suicidal Self-Directed Violence: Behavior aimed at oneself that results in harm or injury, with explicit or implicit suicidal intent.
  • Undetermined Self-Directed Violence: Behavior aimed at oneself that results in harm or injury, but without clear evidence of suicidal intent.
  • Suicide Attempt: Nonfatal, self-directed behavior with the intention to die, but which does not always result in death.
  • Interrupted Self-Directed Violence: Behavior aimed at oneself that is interrupted by another person, preventing or stopping the harm or injury.

In addition to these behaviors, some individuals may experience suicidal thoughts or ideation, which can be classified as either passive or active:

  • Passive Suicidal Ideation: Thoughts about one’s own death, without any desire or plan to harm oneself.
  • Active Suicidal Ideation: Thoughts about one’s own death with at least some level of intention or plan to act on them.

By understanding the different forms that suicidal behavior can take, we can better recognize warning signs and provide appropriate support and resources to those in need.


Understanding Suicide: Prevalence and Prevention in the U.S.

Suicide is a growing concern in the United States, with over 45,979 individuals dying by suicide in 2020 alone. The majority of those who died were white men, who accounted for more than 69 percent of suicide deaths. Despite increased efforts to raise awareness and prevent suicide, rates remain high.

While it’s recommended that individuals at high risk of suicide receive mental health services, such services are not a guaranteed preventive measure. To address the issue of suicide as a public health concern, we need to focus on preventive measures that target the population as a whole. By increasing access to mental health services and implementing other preventive measures, we can work towards reducing the devastating impact of suicide on individuals, families, and communities.


Who Is at Risk of Suicide?

Suicide is a complex issue with many contributing factors. Identifying those who may be at increased risk is essential for prevention efforts. Here are some factors that are associated with an increased risk of suicidal behavior.

  • Mental Illness

Approximately 1 in 5 adults experience a mental illness in a given year. While not all people who die by suicide were previously diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, there is a link between suicide and mental illness. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and substance abuse disorders are associated with an increased risk of suicidal behavior.

  • Substance Abuse Disorders

Research shows that alcohol use disorder is one of the strongest predictors of suicide. People with substance use disorders are about 6 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. Older individuals with an addiction, individuals with both an addiction and a history of previous suicide attempts, heroin users, and those who abuse sedatives are at higher risk within the addiction population.

  • Family History

A family history of suicide increases one’s odds of dying by suicide.

  • Trauma and Abuse

Childhood trauma and abuse can be a predictor of suicidal thoughts. A 2017 study found a significant link between childhood sexual abuse and suicidal ideation in adults.

  • Other Risk Factors

Other factors associated with suicide include:

    • Relationship problems
    • Problematic substance use
    • Physical health issues or serious illnesses
    • Job and financial problems
    • Difficulty accessing healthcare
    • Criminal or legal problems
    • Unsafe media depictions of suicide
  • Risk Factors in Youth

Young people are especially at risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 14 and 25 and 34, and it’s the third-leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 15 and 24.

A recent or serious loss, a psychiatric disorder, particularly depression or a traumatic-stress related disorder, previous suicide attempts, alcohol and other substance abuse disorders, and family history of suicide, are among the risk factors that can affect young people. It is imperative to get treatment early for children or adolescents who have a number of risk factors.

Struggling with sexual orientation in an environment that isn’t supportive is an additional risk factor for suicide among youth. LGBTQ+ youth are more than 4 times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. Additionally, 36 percent of LGBTQ+ youth reported that they have been physically threatened or harmed, and those who reported this attempted suicide at nearly triple the rate of those who did not in the past year.

  • Risk Factors in Black Youth

Between 2007 and 2017, the rate of suicide among Black youth increased faster than that of any other racial or ethnic group. A report from the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health states that Black youth under age 13 are 2 times as likely to die by suicide as their white peers. Along with traditional risk factors, Black youth face additional risk factors, such as strain associated with racism and discrimination.

  • Social Media

Use A study published in 2017 found a link between increased social media use among young adults and increased social isolation. While causation remains unclear, the study found that participants who spent more than two hours a day on social media had twice the odds of perceived social isolation than those who spent a half hour a day or less. Social media can be beneficial in bringing together people who might otherwise struggle to make daily connections, but it may become a risk factor if it’s used as a replacement for human relationships.

Overall, identifying risk factors and addressing them through prevention and treatment efforts can help reduce the incidence of suicide.


What Is Suicide Contagion?

Suicide contagion occurs when the suicide of one person or multiple people leads to an increase in suicidal behavior among others. This phenomenon can affect anyone, but it is particularly concerning for those who already have suicidal thoughts, have made previous suicide attempts, or have other risk factors for suicide.

The Impact of Celebrity Suicide on Suicide Contagion

In 2018, a study found that following the suicide of actor Robin Williams in 2014, there was a nearly 10 percent increase in suicides. Males and people between ages 30 and 44 showed the greatest increase during this time period. This is an example of how a celebrity suicide can impact suicide contagion.

Media Guidelines for Reporting on Suicide

The media has a significant influence on public perception and behavior. When a celebrity dies by suicide, the media is often saturated with articles and reports about the death, which can include sensationalized information and specific details. The coverage can trigger people who are already experiencing suicidal thoughts to identify with the celebrity and potentially engage in suicidal behavior.

To address concerns about suicide contagion, media, public health, and suicide prevention organizations have developed “Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide”. These guidelines establish best practices for news coverage related to suicide, including avoiding oversimplification or speculation on the reason for the suicide and not describing or depicting the method or the location where the death took place. Adherence to these guidelines can help reduce the risk of suicide contagion and potentially save lives.

In Conclusion

Suicide contagion is a real and concerning phenomenon that can impact individuals who are already at risk for suicide. Celebrity suicides and media coverage of suicide can contribute to suicide contagion, making it essential for media outlets to follow established guidelines for reporting on suicide. By raising awareness of suicide contagion and following best practices for reporting on suicide, we can help prevent further tragedies and promote mental health and well-being.


Recognizing Signs of Suicidal Behavior

One of the biggest challenges in preventing suicide is identifying the warning signs. While not everyone shows clear red flags, it’s important to be aware of the subtle signs that may indicate someone is contemplating suicide. For example, a person may not directly say they’re considering suicide, but they may hint at it through indirect comments such as “You’ll be better off when I’m gone.”

However, some people may show more explicit signs of suicidal behavior that require immediate intervention. Seek immediate help if someone is researching suicide methods or acquiring lethal means like firearms or large quantities of medication. Additionally, behaviors such as putting one’s affairs in order or giving away prized possessions may also indicate suicidal ideation.

It’s important to be aware of other red flags, which can include:

  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Feeling like a burden to others
  • Feeling trapped
  • Experiencing unbearable emotional pain
  • Increased substance abuse
  • Acting more agitated, anxious or reckless than usual
  • Significant mood swings
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Withdrawing from others or feeling isolated
  • Changes in sleep patterns (sleeping too much or too little)

These signs should be taken seriously in both adults and children. It’s crucial not to dismiss them as attention-seeking behavior, as each warning sign is an indication that the person is struggling and needs prompt help.


Preventing Suicide: What You Can Do

Suicide is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach to prevention. Public health programs, accessible and affordable treatment options, and open communication all play a crucial role in reducing the risk of suicide. If you’re concerned about someone who may be struggling, there are steps you can take to help.

Recognizing the Warning Signs

Not everyone who is at risk of suicide will display warning signs, and the signs can be hard to detect. Some behaviors that may suggest imminent danger include:

  • Researching ways to commit suicide or gathering lethal means
  • Putting one’s affairs in order or giving away prized possessions
  • Communicating feelings of hopelessness or wanting to die
  • Talking about being a burden to others or feeling trapped
  • Acting unusually anxious, agitated, or reckless
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Changes in sleep patterns or increased substance abuse

If you notice any of these behaviors, take them seriously, and seek help immediately.

Asking Specific Questions

If you suspect someone may be considering suicide, it’s important to communicate openly and directly. Asking specific questions about suicide does not increase the likelihood of an attempt, but rather can provide relief from isolation and allow for better understanding of complex emotions. Try to ask questions such as:

  • “Are you having thoughts of suicide?”
  • “Have you had thoughts of suicide in the past?”
  • “When did you begin feeling this way?”
  • “How can I help you through this difficult time?”
  • “Have you considered getting help? What steps have you taken to get help?”

Providing Support

Listen to what the person is saying without judgment and show empathy. Avoid making statements that may trigger feelings of shame or cause further isolation. You can convey unconditional support by:

  • Listening to their concerns and emotions
  • Offering encouragement and hope
  • Reassuring them that they are not alone
  • Helping them feel understood and accepted

Creating a Help Plan

It can be difficult for individuals struggling with suicidal thoughts to connect to mental health professionals and services on their own. Gathering a list of resources for treatment, such as the names of licensed therapists or psychiatrists, as well as other services that can assist with personal care needs and transportation to appointments, can help make the process easier.

Enacting a Safety Plan

If you believe that someone is in imminent danger of harming themselves, take immediate action by enacting a safety plan. Stay with the person until help arrives, remove any lethal means, and take them to the nearest hospital or call 911.

Preventing suicide requires ongoing effort and a commitment to supporting those who are struggling. By recognizing the warning signs, asking specific questions, providing support, and creating a help and safety plan, you can play a critical role in helping someone find hope and healing.


Where to Find Help for Suicidal Behavior

Suicide is a serious issue that requires prompt attention and care. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts or have risk factors for suicide.

Help and chat lines: There are several national hotlines available to provide free and confidential support and connect individuals in crisis with local resources. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (call 988) and the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) are just a few examples.

Therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavior therapy are recommended treatments for people experiencing suicidal ideation. These types of therapy can help individuals address negative thought patterns, improve coping skills, and build a support system.

Medication: Some people experiencing suicidal ideation may benefit from medication. A licensed psychiatrist, such as a child or adolescent psychiatrist for young people, can provide a full evaluation and prescribe medication as necessary.

Emergency services: In the event of imminent risk, call 911 immediately or go to the nearest emergency room for immediate medical attention.

Education and awareness: Raising awareness about suicide prevention can help reduce stigma and increase access to care. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website BeThe1To.com, created by the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, provides resources and information about suicide prevention.

By working together to increase awareness, educate others, and mobilize local resources, we can help prevent suicide and support those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts. Remember, suicide is preventable and seeking help is a sign of strength.


Suicide Prevention Resources

Suicide is a complex and serious issue that requires attention and care. If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, there are resources available to help. Here are some organizations and websites that offer support and information on suicide prevention.

  • National Institute of Mental Health: Frequently Asked Questions About Suicide

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is a trusted resource for information on mental health and suicide prevention. Their FAQ section on suicide covers risk factors, warning signs, and treatment options for people who are at risk of suicide. This resource can be helpful for individuals who want to learn more about suicide and how to help someone who may be at risk.

  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP)

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) is a national organization dedicated to raising awareness about mental health and suicide prevention. The AFSP provides resources for anyone having thoughts of suicide and their loved ones, and offers a search tool for suicide loss support groups in your area. They also fund research related to suicide and prevention.

  • The Trevor Project Lifeline

The Trevor Project is a leading suicide prevention organization for LGTBQ+ people under age 25. Their lifeline provides support for individuals who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, or who need someone to talk to. You can reach their helpline at any time by dialing 866-488-7386, or text “START” to 678-678 to speak with a Trevor counselor.

  • Suicide Prevention Resource Center: Resources for Black and African Americans

The Suicide Prevention Resource Center provides news and resources related to suicide prevention among Black and African American people. They offer information on issues like how racism affects mental health among Black women, and provide resources for individuals and communities to support suicide prevention efforts.

By utilizing these resources and working together, we can increase awareness and help prevent suicide. Remember, help is always available and seeking support is a sign of strength.

Author Dr. Serenity

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