What You Must Know About Suicide

Every year 32,000 Americans commit suicide. At one person every 16 minutes, it’s a national tragedy, but one each of us can help prevent.

“Suicide prevention involves recognizing the warning signs and taking them seriously,” says David L. Shern, Ph.D., spokesperson for Mental Health America in Alexandria, Va. “In many cases, undiagnosed and untreated mental illness—especially depression—is to blame.”

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, 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, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 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 75 years and older have the highest rate of suicide.


Q: Do antidepressants raise or lower the risk?

A: “Overall, antidepressants are effective in treating depression, and people who are effectively treated for it are less likely to complete suicide than those left untreated,” says Dr. Shern.

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.


Q: Can suicide be prevented?

A: “The best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression, recognize the warning signs, and intervene before the person can complete the process,” says Dr. Shern.

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.

“People who talk about killing themselves or exhibit the warning signs of suicide need immediate help,” says Dr. Shern. “If a suicide attempt seems imminent, call a crisis center or 911, or take the person to an emergency room. Don’t try to handle the situation yourself—a suicidal person needs immediate assistance from qualified mental health professionals.”


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