James Madison University

Suicide – Know the Facts

In the United States a person dies by suicide every 16 minutes, claiming more than 34, 000 lives each year. It is the second leading cause of death for college students and the third leading cause of death for youth ages 15 – 24. Yet, while suicide is often seen as crisis for the young, suicide rates for older adults and the elderly are rising. In fact, elderly Caucasian males have the highest suicide rates. At least 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric illness. Between 20 and 50 percent of people who kill themselves have previously attempted suicide. Those who have made serious suicide attempts are at a much higher risk for actually taking their lives.

Risk factors for suicide include:

  • Psychiatric Disorders
  • Past history of attempted suicide
  • Genetic Predisposition including family history of suicide, suicide attempts or depression
  • Impulsivity
  • Males are 3 to 5 times more likely to die by suicide than females
  • Elderly Caucasian males have the highest suicide rates

A suicide crisis is a time-limited occurrence signaling immediate danger of suicide. Suicide risk, by contrast, is a broader term that includes the above factors such as age and sex, psychiatric diagnosis, past suicide attempts, and traits like impulsivity. The signs of crisis are:

  • Precipitating Event
    A recent event that is particularly distressing such as loss of loved one or career failure. Sometimes the individuals own behavior precipitates the event: for example, a man's abusive behavior while drinking causes his wife to leave him.
  • Intense Affective State in Addition to Depression
    Desperation (anguish plus urgency regarding need for relief), rage, psychic pain or inner tension, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, acute sense of abandonment.
  • Changes in Behavior
    Speech
    suggesting the individual is close to suicide. Such speech may be indirect. Be alert to such statements as, "My family would be better off without me." Sometimes those contemplating suicide talk as if they are saying goodbye or going away.
    Actions ranging from buying a gun to suddenly putting one's affairs in order.
    Deterioration in functioning at work or socially, increasing use of alcohol, other self-destructive behavior, loss of control, rage explosions.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Observable signs of serious depression:
    Unrelenting low mood
    Pessimism
    Hopelessness
    Desperation
    Anxiety, psychic pain and inner tension
    Withdrawal
    Sleep problems
  • Increased alcohol and/or other drug use
  • Recent impulsiveness and taking unnecessary risks
  • Threatening suicide or expressing a strong wish to die
  • Making a plan:
    Giving away prized possessions
    Sudden or impulsive purchase of a firearm
    Obtaining other means of killing oneself such as poisons or medications
  • Unexpected rage or anger

Most suicidal individuals give some warning of their intentions. The most effective way to prevent a friend or loved one from taking his or her life is to recognize the factors that put people at risk for suicide, take warning signs seriously and know how to respond.

Recognize the Imminent Dangers
The signs that most directly warn of suicide include:

  • Threatening to hurt or kill oneself
  • Looking for ways to kill oneself (weapons, pills or other means)
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
  • Has made plans or preparations for a potentially serious attempt

Other warning signs include expressions or other indications of certain intense feelings in addition to depression, in particular:

  • Insomnia
  • Intense anxiety, usually exhibited as psychic
  • pain or internal tension, as well as panic attacks
  • Feeling desperate or trapped -- like there's no way out
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Feeling there's no reason or purpose to live
  • Rage or anger

Certain behaviors can also serve as warning signs, particularly when they are not characteristic of the person's normal behavior. These include:

  • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities
  • Engaging in violent or self-destructive behavior
  • Increasing alcohol or drug use
  • Withdrawing from friends or family

Take it Seriously

  • Fifty to 75 percent of all suicides give some warning of their intentions to a friend or family member.
  • Imminent signs must be taken seriously.

Be Willing to Listen

  • Start by telling the person you are concerned and give him/her examples.
  • If he/she is depressed, don't be afraid to ask whether he/she is considering suicide, or if he/she has a particular plan or method in mind.
  • Ask if they have a therapist and are taking medication.
  • Do not attempt to argue someone out of suicide. Rather, let the person know you care, that he/she is not alone, that suicidal feelings are temporary and that depression can be treated. Avoid the temptation to say, "You have so much to live for," or "Your suicide will hurt your family."

Seek Professional Help

  • Be actively involved in encouraging the person to see a physician or mental health professional immediately.
  • Individuals contemplating suicide often don't believe they can be helped, so you may have to do more.
  • Help the person find a knowledgeable mental health professional or a reputable treatment facility, and take them to the treatment.

In an Acute Crisis

  • If a friend or loved one is threatening, talking about or making plans for suicide, these are signs of an acute crisis.
  • Do not leave the person alone.

For more information regarding suicide statistics, resources, and support for those who have lost a loved one to suicide, please see the American Foundation for Suicide Webpage at www.afsp.org