Suicide prevention: life on the edge
There is no one explanation for any particular suicide. The reasons people kill themselves vary and are usually intertwining components in a web of biological, sociological and psychological factors, all culminating with a "trigger event" which results in the taking of one's own life. Recent suicide statistics show that there are upwards of 30,000 suicides yearly in the US.
Depression is stated as the most obvious and explicable reason why people kill themselves. However, depression in American society is a complex psychological term that, according to many professionals, has become "overused" as a diagnosis and misused in treatment. In addition to looking at the signs and symptoms of depression, it is important that we utilize both suicide prevention and suicide risk assessment in evaluating a person's suicidal tendencies. When we realize that it could be our loved one, a friend or co-worker who is living on the edge of life and death, we all want to know more about how to detect and respond to someone thinking of death by suicide.
Men are more likely to kill themselves than women
Suicide statistics show that while clinical depression is twice as common in females as males, suicide is three times more common in males. While suicidal ideation and gestures may be more predominant in females, males are more prone to completing the task because they use weapons such as firearms; women tend to overdose on medications. Many researchers are looking into biological studies regarding a genetic base for depression and some autopsies of suicide victims have reported abnormalities such as a low level of serotonin (a brain chemical). Other studies focus on the sociological impact of depression and suicide that have shed light on phenomena like "copy cat" suicides and suicide pacts among teens, emphasizing that when suicide occurs, it may lower the threshold for vulnerable people in similar situations or geographic vicinity. As far as age group goes, suicide statistics clearly show a rise in teenage suicide, increased now three times more than 25 years ago.
The elderly are also particularly at risk
A second age group affected in more recent times is the elderly. People over the age of 85 have the highest rate of suicide than any age group. With improvement of technology that will keep people alive longer, also comes the question of what happens when people who are suffering want to be given the choice to die. Ethical issues regarding the taking of one's own life are being re-examined taking into account new statistics and questions regarding the "enigma" of suicide.
What are the warning signs?
Suicide prevention experts have initiated a host of risk factors and signs to watch for when assessing the likelihood of suicide. Most experts agree that more times than not, suicide victims leave clues as to their intentions, often referred to as "cries for help." These clues can be giving away possessions, good-bye notes, comments like "You won't have me to kick around anymore" and violent drawings. In addition, a suicidal person may exhibit behavior changes such as:
- a change in appearance or hygiene
- change in appetite
- sleep disturbance
- change in work or school performance
- mood disturbance
- risky behavior, and
- pre-occupation with death.
If you are a friend or relative of a person you believe may be in trouble and contemplating taking his or her own life, it is wise to heed these warning signs and err on the side of caution. All too often we hear from family members or close friends the one sentence we hate to hear: "I didn't think he meant it."
The most important risk factors when assessing suicide
The professional tool utilized in suicide prevention is called a "risk assessment." A recent survey sent randomly to 500 practicing psychologists revealed their views of the most important risk factors in assessing suicide. They included, but are not limited to:
- the medical seriousness of previous attempts
- a history of suicide attempts
- acute suicidal ideation
- severe hopelessness
- attraction to death
- family history of suicide
- acute overuse of drugs or alcohol, and
- loss and separation.
Triggering events or situations may include medication issues and interactions, social triggers and events like the loss of a loved one, ostracism, divorce, trauma, anniversaries, media violence and change in employment status. If someone you know is talking about suicide and especially if he or she has a plan of how they might take their life, always let someone know. If you are concerned about someone you love, a good place to start is by talking to them and telling them that you care. Giving someone hope and letting them know they are loved goes a long way in helping suicidal people. Professional help is available through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
What else can you do if you are really worried about someone?
A very useful source of practical information, which is aimed at the suicidal themselves, is the Suicide: Read This First page. If you know of someone who is feeling suicidal, try to get them to read this page; it will only take about five minutes. For those of us trying to prevent suicide, it also contains Handling a call from a suicidal person, a very helpful ten-point list that you can print out and keep near your phone or computer, and What can I do to help someone who may be suicidal?
Suicide can cause us to question our most basic assumptions
Any death shakes our faith in our own world and in the order of the world around us. But suicide can especially provoke us to question our most basic assumptions. Whether a suicide is thwarted or sadly when it is carried out, survivors will learn a great deal about their loved ones as well as themselves. One thing that rings clear along the path of survival from suicide is the realization that we seldom truly know someone else and that in some way each of us is ultimately alone. Suicide is one more thing that leaves us shaking our heads and utterly bewildered at how impermanent life can be and how the certainty of living can turn on a moment's notice.
Remember: suicide is a permanent solution to what is often a temporary problem
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Suicide prevention section helpful too.