Suicide is a major public health concern. Around 38,000 people die by their own hand each year in the United States. In fact, more people die by suicide each year than by homicide.
Suicide is tragic, but it is often preventable. Knowing the risk factors for suicide and who is at risk can help reduce the suicide rate.
Who is at risk for suicide?
Suicide does not discriminate. People of all genders, ages, and ethnicities are at risk for suicide. But people most at risk tend to share certain characteristics. The main risk factors for suicide are:
Depression, other mental disorders, or substance abuse disorder
A prior suicide attempt
Family history of a mental disorder or substance abuse
Family history of suicide
Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
Having guns or other firearms in the home
Incarceration, being in prison or jail
Being exposed to others’ suicidal behavior, such as that of family members, peers, or media figures.
The risk for suicidal behavior also is associated with changes in brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, including serotonin, which is also associated with depression. Lower levels of serotonin have been found in the brains of people with a history of suicide attempts.
Many people have some of these risk factors but do not attempt suicide. Suicide is not a normal response to stress. It is however, a sign of extreme distress, not a harmless bid for attention.
Men are more likely to die by suicide than women, but women are more likely to attempt suicide. Men are more likely to use deadlier methods, such as firearms or suffocation. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide by poisoning.
What about children?
Children and young people are at risk for suicide. Year after year, suicide remains one of the top three leading causes of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
What about older adults?
Older adults are at risk for suicide, too. In fact, white males age 85 and older consistently have the highest suicide rate than any other age and ethnic group.
What about different ethnic groups?
Among ethnicities, American Indians and Alaska Natives tend to have the highest rate of suicides, followed by non-Hispanic Whites. Hispanics tend to have the lowest rate of suicides, while African Americans tend to have the second lowest rate.
How can suicide be prevented?
Effective suicide prevention is based on sound research. Programs that work take into account people’s risk factors and promote interventions that are appropriate to specific groups of people. For example, research has shown that mental and substance abuse disorders are risk factors for suicide. Therefore, many programs focus on treating these disorders in addition to addressing suicide risk specifically.
Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” can effectively reduce suicide risk. One type is called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help people learn new ways of dealing with stressful experiences by training them to consider alternative actions when thoughts of suicide arise.
Another type of psychotherapy called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) has been shown to reduce the rate of suicide among people with borderline personality disorder, a serious mental illness characterized by unstable moods, relationships, self-image, and behavior. A therapist trained in DBT helps a person recognize when his or her feelings or actions are disruptive or unhealthy, and teaches the skills needed to deal better with upsetting situations.
Some medications may also help. For example, the antipsychotic medication clozapine is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for suicide prevention in people with schizophrenia. Other promising medications and psychosocial treatments for suicidal people are being tested.
Still other research has found that many older adults and women who die by suicide saw their primary care providers in the year before death. Training doctors to recognize signs that a person may be considering suicide may help prevent even more suicides.
What should I do if someone I know is considering suicide?
If you know someone who is considering suicide, do not leave him or her alone. Try to get your loved one to seek immediate help from his or her doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911.
Remove any access he or she may have to firearms or other potential tools for suicide (such as household knives), including medications.
If you are in crisis
Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The service is available to anyone. All calls are confidential.