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What you must know about suicide

In 2007, over 34,000 Americans committed suicide, making it the tenth leading cause of death. At one person every 16 minutes, it’s a national tragedy, but one each of us can help prevent.

Depression is the major underlying cause of suicide. Understanding and recognizing the warning signs of depression, and suicidal behavior, are helpful in preventing suicide.

The following answers to important questions can help you understand suicide and take steps to stop it.

The reasons

Q: Why do people commit suicide?

A: A suicide attempt is an indication something is gravely wrong in a person’s life. Suicide is a desperate attempt to escape unbearable suffering.

Talking about it

Q: Can talking about suicide make a person who’s distressed more likely to try it?

A: The opposite is true—ignoring the problem in hopes it will go away can make the person feel even more isolated and misunderstood.

At risk

Q: Who’s at risk for suicide?

A: Suicide results from mental illness. Other risk factors include the recent loss of a loved one or a job, divorce, a dire medical condition, and a lack of social support.

These people are at higher risk of taking their lives:

  • Older adults. People ages 65 and older have the highest suicide rates of any age group. Contributing factors are untreated depression, death of loved ones, chronic illness, and loneliness.

  • Teenagers. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death in teenagers and accounts for almost 13 percent of all deaths annually. Suicide risk factors for teenagers include depression, alcohol or drug abuse, a recent traumatic event, availability of a gun, and exposure to other teens who have committed suicide.

  • Males. Of those who attempt suicide, the completion rate for men is four times higher than for women. However, women attempt suicide about two to three times as often as men. Men who are 85 years and older have the highest rate of suicide.

Medications

Q: Do antidepressants raise or lower the risk?

A: Antidepressant medications are effective in treating depression, thus reducing the overall risk of suicide. However, sometimes a person will need to try different types of antidepressants, or use a combination of medications, before an effective result is achieved. Different age and ethnic groups process these medications at a different rate of metabolism. Therefore, close supervision for anyone taking these medications must be done. Antidepressants can take weeks to several months before the beneficial effects of the medications are noticed, and cannot be used as a quick fix for suicidal thoughts.

Signs to watch for

Q: What are the signs someone might be suicidal?

A: Most suicidal people give some sign of their intentions. These symptoms may indicate a person is at risk for suicide:

  • Verbal suicide threats, such as “You’d be better off without me.”

  • Lack of interest in future plans.

  • References to “unbearable” feelings and hopelessness.

  • Saying good-bye to family and friends.

  • Giving away prized possessions.

  • Increasing withdrawal from family and friends.

Prevention

Q: Can suicide be prevented?

A: The best prevention is to treat the underlying causes. If a person is depressed, or is a substance abuser, for example, treating the disorder helps to prevent the disease from progressing to the point of suicidal thinking. Medication along with counseling have been shown to be the best methods of treatment. Recognizing the warning signs and seeking help are the best methods of prevention.

If you think a person is suicidal:

  • Determine if the person has a specific plan to carry out the suicide.

  • Don’t leave the person alone.

Whenever anyone verbalizes or acts as though he or she will harm himself or herself, this person should be taken seriously. Contact a local crisis center, or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also contact 911 for help, or take the person to the nearest emergency room. It is difficult to try and help the suicidal person by yourself. Contact or get the person to a qualified mental health professional as soon as possible. 

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