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Understanding Suicide

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Every suicide is a tragedy, and to some degree a mystery. Suicide often stems from a deep feeling of hopelessness. The inability to see solutions to problems or to cope with challenging life circumstances may lead people to see taking their own lives as the only solution to what is really a temporary situation, and most survivors of suicide attempts go on to live full, rewarding lives. Depression is a key risk factor for suicide; others include psychiatric disorders, substance use, chronic pain, a family history of suicide, and a prior suicide attempt. Impulsiveness often plays a role among adolescents who take their life.

If a person deemed at risk due to any of the above exhibits sudden mood changes—even a suddenly upbeat mood—or completely new behaviors, they may be actively suicidal. Those who speak about being a burden to others, having no reason to live, feeling trapped, or in unbearable pain may also be contemplating suicide.

Statistically, suicide occurs most frequently among people ages 45 to 54. Women are more likely than men to attempt suicide; men are more likely than women to complete the act.

How can I talk to someone who is suicidal?

There are many myths about suicide. One is the mistaken belief that talking about it to a person in danger encourages the act. If a loved one expresses thoughts or plans of suicide, it’s essential to initiate a conversation. It is wise to approach the discussion by identifying concrete resources such as a therapist or suicide prevention hotline, and to conclude the conversation with a stated commitment to follow up with the person over time. Be direct with the person by asking the following questions:

  • How are you coping with your challenges?

  • Are you thinking about hurting yourself?

  • Are you thinking about dying?

  • Are you thinking about suicide?

  • Have you come up with a plan for taking your own life?

Where can someone who is thinking about suicide get help?

Anyone who is experiencing persistent suicidal thoughts or behaviors should seek help as soon as possible. In the midst of a crisis, the best resources are usually suicide hotlines—staffed by people who are trained to both talk someone through an immediate crisis and to connect them with additional help in their area—crisis centers, or local authorities. Beyond that, seeking the help of a trained mental health professional is the best way to ward off future crises and sustain well-being over time.

Are children at risk of suicide?

The overall risk that a child will hurt him- or herself is small. But it is certainly possible for a child or teen to experience suicidal thoughts or, sadly, to die by suicide. While the risk tends to be highest during the teen years, children as young as 5 have been known to think about or die by suicide. Parents can help by learning to recognize common warning signs of suicidality (like sudden changes in mood, frequent talk about "going away" or dying, or risky, impulsive behavior), seeking mental healthcare for children who may be at risk, and fostering an environment where children feel safe talking about their emotions and their challenges.

How can I cope after losing someone to suicide?

Losing a loved one to suicide triggers deep, complicated grief. In addition to the pain of the loss itself, individuals who survive a loved one's suicide often grapple with confusing feelings of shame, anger, guilt, despair, or relief; in some cases, learning about or discovering the death may be traumatizing. While it's tempting to isolate yourself and shoulder your grief alone, seeking help from others—whether your own family and friends, a trained mental health professional, and/or a support group—is often the surest path toward healing. Though the pain of the loss will likely never go away, many suicide survivors find that, with time, they come to recognize that their loved one's death was not their fault and are able to find meaning and purpose in life again.

How common is it to survive a suicide attempt?

The vast majority of attempted suicides are non-fatal. Many who survive a suicide attempt feel great relief and may even come to approach their life with a newfound hopefulness afterward; however, many survivors continue to struggle afterward with mental health challenges and may continue to be at risk of future attempts on their own life. Therefore, it's critical that anyone who has attempted suicide seek mental healthcare and turn to their loved ones for needed support. With support, in the vast majority of cases, he or she will go on to live a happy, fulfilling life.

What is suicide contagion?

Suicide contagion is an increase in suicide attempts and completed suicides following exposure to a suicide in the media or one’s personal circle. The suicide of a prominent celebrity or a member of a specific community, such as the military or an elementary school, have been shown to correlate with a rise in suicides. Although many studies have reported this correlation, they cannot conclude that exposure caused the elevated rates. Those who are especially susceptible to suicide contagion, also referred to as copycat suicide, include adolescents, people who already struggle with suicidal thoughts, and people with mental health conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The phenomenon may occur, in part, due to the tendency to learn from important or relevant figures and because the idea may become more prominent in one’s mind. Suicide contagion can be curbed. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention issued media guidelines that many publications have adopted, such as not detailing the method used in suicides, not suggesting that a death was due to a simple reason or an achieved a goal such as fame or revenge, and perhaps most important, listing resources to help those who may be struggling.

What is assisted suicide?

In some countries and U.S. states, individuals with a terminal illness are legally allowed to request physician-assisted suicide, in which a medical professional helps them procure the means to deliberately end their life if they so choose. Assisted suicide is the subject of great debate—with those in favor arguing that it allows people to "die with dignity" and spare themselves and their loved ones great pain, and those opposed arguing that it devalues human life or may be applied by someone who has other, yet-unexplored options.

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