Suicide and Suicidal Behavior
Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life on purpose. Suicidal behavior is any action that could cause a person to die, such as taking a drug overdose or crashing a car on purpose.
Suicide and suicidal behaviors usually occur in people with one or more of the following:
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Drug or alcohol dependence
- Stressful life issues, such as serious financial or relationship problems
People who try to commit suicide are often trying to get away from a life situation that seems impossible to deal with. Many who make a suicide attempt are seeking relief from:
- Feeling ashamed, guilty, or like a burden to others
- Feeling like a victim
- Feelings of rejection, loss, or loneliness
Suicidal behaviors may occur when there is a situation or event that the person finds overwhelming, such as:
- Aging (the elderly have the highest rate of suicide)
- Death of a loved one
- Dependence on drugs or alcohol
- Emotional trauma
- Serious physical illness
- Unemployment or money problems
Risk factors for suicide in teenagers include:
- Access to guns
- Family member who committed suicide
- History of hurting themselves on purpose
- History of being neglected or abused
- Living in communities where there have been recent outbreaks of suicide in young people
- Romantic breakup
Most suicide attempts do not result in death. Many of these attempts are done in a way that makes rescue possible. These attempts are often a cry for help.
Some people attempt suicide in a way that is less likely to be fatal, such as poisoning or overdose. Males, especially elderly men, are more likely to choose violent methods, such as shooting themselves. As a result, suicide attempts by males are more likely to result in death.
Relatives of people who attempt or commit suicide often blame themselves or become very angry. They may see the suicide attempt as selfish. However, people who try to commit suicide often mistakenly believe that they are doing their friends and relatives a favor by taking themselves out of the world.
Often, but not always, a person may show certain symptoms or behaviors before a suicide attempt, including:
- Having trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
- Giving away belongings
- Talking about going away or the need to “get my affairs in order”
- Suddenly changing behavior, especially calmness after a period of anxiety
- Losing interest in activities they used to enjoy
- Performing self-destructive behaviors, such as heavily drinking alcohol, using illegal drugs, or cutting their body
- Pulling away from friends or not wanting to go out
- Suddenly having trouble in school or work
- Talking about death or suicide, or even saying that they want to hurt themselves
- Talking about feeling hopeless or guilty
- Changing sleep or eating habits
- Arranging ways to take their own life (such as buying a gun or many pills)
People who are at risk for suicidal behavior may not seek treatment for many reasons, including:
- They believe nothing will help
- They do not want to tell anyone they have problems
- They think asking for help is a sign of weakness
- They do not know where to go for help
A person may need emergency treatment after a suicide attempt. They may need first aid, CPR, or more intensive treatments.
People who try to commit suicide may need to stay in a hospital for treatment and to reduce the risk of future attempts. Therapy is one of the most important parts of treatment.
Any mental health disorder that may have led to the suicide attempt should be evaluated and treated. This includes:
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Drug or alcohol dependence
- Major depression
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, there are numbers that you can call from anywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-999-9999.
As with any other type of emergency, call the local emergency number (such as 911) right away if someone you know has attempted suicide. Do not leave the person alone, even after you have called for help.
Suicide Warning Signs
Any of the following could be potential warning signs for suicide:
- Excessive sadness or moodiness:Long-lasting sadness, mood swings, and unexpected rage.
- Hopelessness:Feeling a deep sense of hopelessness about the future, with little expectation that circumstances can improve.
- Sleep problems
- Sudden calmness:Suddenly becoming calm after a period of depression or moodiness can be a sign that the person has made a decision to end his or her life.
- Withdrawal:Choosing to be alone and avoiding friends or social activities also are possible symptoms of depression, a leading cause of suicide. This includes the loss of interest or pleasure in activities the person previously enjoyed.
- Changes in personality and/or appearance:A person who is considering suicide might exhibit a change in attitude or behavior, such as speaking or moving with unusual speed or slowness. In addition, the person might suddenly become less concerned about his or her personal appearance.
- Dangerous or self-harmful behavior:Potentially dangerous behavior, such as reckless driving, engaging in unsafe sex, and increased use of drugs and/or alcohol might indicate that the person no longer values his or her life.
- Recent trauma or life crisis:A major life crises might trigger a suicide attempt. Crises include the death of a loved one or pet, divorce or break-up of a relationship, diagnosis of a major illness, loss of a job, or serious financial problems.
- Making preparations:Often, a person considering suicide will begin to put his or her personal business in order. This might include visiting friends and family members, giving away personal possessions, making a will, and cleaning up his or her room or home. Some people will write a note before committing suicide. Some will buy a firearm or other means like poison.
- Threatening suicide:From 50% to 75% of those considering suicide will give someone — a friend or relative — a warning sign. However, not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it. Every threat of suicide should be taken seriously.
Who Is Most Likely to Commit Suicide?
Suicide rates are highest in teens, young adults, and the elderly. White men over the age of 65 have the highest rate of suicide. Suicide risk also is higher in the following groups:
- Older people who have lost a spouse through death or divorce
- People who have attempted suicide in the past
- People with a family history of suicide
- People with a friend or co-worker who committed suicide
- People with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- People who are unmarried, unskilled, or unemployed
- People with long-term pain or a disabling or terminal illness
- People who are prone to violent or impulsive behavior
- People who have recently been released from a psychiatric hospitalization (This often is a very frightening period of transition.)
- People in certain professions, such as police officers and health care providers who work with terminally ill patients
- People with substance abuse problems
Although women are three times as likely to attempt suicide, men are far more likely to complete the act.
Can Suicide Be Prevented?
Suicide can’t be prevented with certainty, but risks can often be reduced with timely intervention. Research suggests that the best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression and other mental disorders, recognize the warning signs for suicide, and intervene before the person can complete the process of self-destruction.
What Should I Do if I Think Someone is Suicidal?
People who receive support from caring friends and family and who have access to mental health services are less likely to act on their suicidal impulses than are those who are socially isolated. If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs for suicide:
- Don’t be afraid to ask if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide.
- Ask if he or she is seeing a therapist or taking medication.
- Rather than trying to talk the person out of suicide, let him or her know that depression is temporary and treatable.
- In some cases, the person just needs to know that someone cares and is looking for the chance to talk about his or her feelings. You can then encourage the person to seek professional help.
What Should I Do if I See the Warning Signs of Suicide?
If you believe someone you know is in immediate danger of killing himself or herself:
- Do not leave the person alone. If possible, ask for help from friends or other family members.
- Ask the person to give you any weapons he or she might have. Take away or remove sharp objects or anything else that the person could use to hurt himself or herself.
- If the person is already in psychiatric treatment, help him or her to contact the doctor or therapist for guidance and help.
- Try to keep the person as calm as possible.
- Take the person to an emergency room.