Suicide Prevention: Identifying Risk Factors and Noticing the Warning Signs

Thursday, September 12, 2013 1:39 PM

suicideAccording to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide was the 10th leading cause of the death in the U.S. in 2009. That year there were 37,000 suicides, with one million reported attempted suicides. In the same year, suicide was the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Suicide is a major health issue but it’s also a potentially preventable one. While there are several risk factors for suicide, any person who expresses suicidal thoughts or the intent to commit suicide should be taken seriously.  Risk factors for suicide include:

  1. Prior suicide attempts
  2. History and family history of mental disorders
  3. History and family history of substance abuse
  4. History of physical violence and sexual abuse
  5. Chronic illness and/or chronic pain
  6. Exposure to the suicidal behavior of family and friends

Knowing and acting on the signs of suicide exhibited by others could save thousands of lives each year. If someone appears depressed and/or expresses suicidal thoughts, it's important to listen closely and take that person seriously. It's especially important to be concerned if someone exhibits any of these signs and has also attempted suicide in the past, as most successful suicides were preceded by one or more attempts. 

Benjamin Shain, MD, PhD, Psychiatry at NorthShore, shares some of the warning signs of suicide and discusses what you can do to help a person who might be contemplating suicide:

  • Risk-taking behavior. Those who are contemplating suicide might “tempt fate” by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving at dangerous speeds. 
  • Losing interest in previously important activities and friends. Unexplained loss of interest in things like sports, work and volunteer activities might also be combined with a withdrawal from interactions with friends and self-imposed isolation.
  • Researching methods of suicide. Searching suicide online or buying anything that could be used to commit suicide is an important sign to watch for.
  • Talking about death and hopelessness. Conversations and discussions might center on death and wanting to die or on feelings of hopelessness and lacking reasons to live. Potentially suicidal people might also talk about being a burden to family and friends or experiencing unendurable pain.
  • Extreme shifts in mood. Periods of deep depression could be punctuated by feelings of elation, happiness or rage.
  • Increased substance abuse. A history of substance abuse is a risk factor for suicide but increased use could be a warning sign of suicidal thoughts.
  • Noticeable changes in sleep patterns. This could either be exhibited as sleeping too much or suffering from insomnia. 
  • Giving away possessions. Suddenly giving away multiple items that seemed important to the person in the past.

What should you do if you notice these behaviors in a friend or family member?

First, discuss your observations or concerns with the person and/or other friends or family members. Make sure to listen to the person’s concerns and what might be stressful for them. It's essential to urge the person to speak to their primary care physician and/or a mental health professional. If you believe they are an immediate risk to themselves, call 911. 

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