Suicide takes the lives of more than 30,000 people each year, and another 132,000-plus are hospitalized after attempts. More men than women kill themselves, 60% of them with a gun. Many of these tragedies could be prevented by an increased recognition of the signals that someone is considering suicide.
Thoughts of suicide are not a result of personal weakness. Such thoughts may follow a serious loss but usually are triggered by depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or bipolar disorder, a mental illness causing alternating depression and giddiness. These disorders may be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. A combination of medication and talk therapy can be very effective in overcoming depression.
Who Attempts Suicide?
Adolescents, young adults, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to suicide. Because depression is the major cause of suicide and people who are depressed often feel hopeless and helpless, they may feel too overwhelmed to seek help. This is especially likely for young people who have negative feelings and don't know where to turn. Even parents who talk with their children about the dangers of alcohol, drugs, and AIDS are sometimes uncomfortable talking about depression or other types of mental illness. Nonetheless, such discussions are important because they can help children understand that depression is common and treatable.
Although women attempt suicide more often, men are four times more likely to succeed. The risk is also greater in older people who have lost a spouse through death or divorce, people who abuse drugs or alcohol, and those with a history of suicide attempts or a family history of suicide.
What Are the Warning Signs?
People who are thinking about suicide often give clues to their feelings. However, there is no single "type" of suicidal person; everyone is vulnerable. The following signs are red flags that could help identify suicidal thinking.
- Excessive Gloominess: deep sadness that lasts longer than 2 weeks.
- Withdrawal: withdrawing from formerly pleasurable activities, refusing to talk with friends or family, or choosing to be alone most of the time.
- Personality Changes: marked changes in attitude, personal appearance, or eating or sleeping patterns.
- Moodiness: mood swings or sudden calmness after a period of deep sadness or moodiness. The calm may be the result of deciding on a suicide plan.
- Self-Destructive Behavior: sudden participation in dangerous activities, such as driving too fast, having unsafe sex, or stepping up use of alcohol and drugs.
- Struggles Caused by Life Crises: grief over the loss of a loved one, divorce, a health problem, an accident, loss of a job, or money problems.
- Giving Away Possessions: disposing of cherished belongings and settling unfinished business, such as preparing a will.
- Actual Threats: talking about committing suicide. The assumption that people who threaten suicide never really go through with it is not true. All threats should be taken seriously.
How Can You Help?
When certain behaviors are worrisome, it is all right to ask the person if he or she is thinking about suicide. Talking about it won't make it happen; in fact, the opposite is usually true. Don't accept the idea that someone who is thinking about suicide can handle his or her problem alone. And don't keep someone's suicidal threats a secret.
The first step in treatment is to contact a suicide intervention or crisis center, a mental health clinic, or a hospital in your community. Employee assistance programs, primary care physicians, clergy, and psychologists also may help. Never attempt to help someone on your own unless you have been trained to do so.
If someone threatens suicide and has a way to do it, call 911 immediately. Stay with the person until help arrives.
Can Suicidal People Recover?
Yes. About 80% of people with depression who seek treatment get better. A combination of drugs and talk therapy has helped many people recover from their illness. Antidepressant and mood-stabilizing drugs are often used.
There has been some debate over whether antidepressants are safe for adolescents or whether they carry an increased risk of suicide. In 2004, the US Food and Drug Administration began to require that a warning be added to the label of all antidepressants used in adolescents. Some experts disagree with the warning. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends that doctors closely monitor their child and teen patients to make sure they are doing well with their medication.
Pay Attention to These Signs:
If someone has at least five of these symptoms nearly every day for at least 2 weeks, find help.
- Depressed mood
- Change in appetite or weight
- Change in sleeping patterns
- Speaking or moving with unusual speed or slowness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
- Decreased sexual drive
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness, self-reproach, or guilt
- Reduced ability to concentrate, think clearly, or make decisions
- Thoughts of death or expression of death wishes
Suicide Prevention Resources:
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
120 Wall St, 22nd Floor
New York, NY 10005
Friends for Survival Inc (for those who have lost a loved one to suicide)
PO Box 214463
Sacramento, CA 95821
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education)
9001 E Bloomington Freeway, Suite 150
Bloomington, MN 55420
Put On a Happy Face
“A crying infant might provide a good opportunity to examine the throat, but when you need to calm the baby down, it helps to have a few tricks handy. One that works for me is to blow up a latex exam glove and draw a happy face on it. I often ask the parent to hold the balloon and move it from side to side to help me with the examination of the child. This seems to calm everyone down.” - Thomas G. Greidanus, MD, Camp Carroll Troop Medical Clinic, Korea.