The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has worked since 1987 to save lives, support those affected by suicide, and fund research and public education campaigns on mental health and suicide prevention. With chapters across the country, the AFSP is building a culture in which mental health issues lose their stigma, and in which everyone can access information and support to be an advocate for themselves, their families, and communities.
In our click-bait social media age, there’s obviously a lot of misinformation and even harmful “advice” out there. Basic facts about suicide and suicide prevention can empower each of us to make a difference.
To start with statistics: Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death for people in the United States. (This is an age-adjusted figure calculated to account for death rates across multiple communities.) In 2020, more than 1 million people in the country attempted suicide, and about 46,000 died.
While suicide among young people is of serious concern, the suicide rate among white men in middle age is the highest among all demographic groups. Adult males in 2020 died by suicide almost four times as frequently as adult females, and white adult males across age ranges constituted just under 70 percent of all suicide deaths that year. The average number of people who die by suicide per day is about 130.
Guns or other firearms were the instrument involved in well over half of all the deaths by suicide in 2020.
Every one of these people was an individual, someone with much promise, and likely many struggles, someone deserving of respect, honor, and care.
Now a more hopeful statistic: Ninety-three percent of adults responding to a recent survey believe that suicide can be prevented. And close to 80 percent said they would like to get educated on what they can do to help someone experiencing suicidal feelings. At the same time, many said they feel barriers in their way when it comes to discussing the issue with loved ones: They may not know the right words to say, or may lack substantive information.
Common risk factors
Every person and their circumstances are different, and there is no single cause of suicide that anyone could point to. But there are certain common risk factors that make it more probable that a person may take their own life.
The big common denominator consists of feelings of depression, despair, and lack of hope. People are more likely to attempt suicide when medical conditions or other stressful issues add up, bringing on this type of severely lowered affect and a sense of worthlessness. Suicidal ideation is also often accompanied by anxiety or substance abuse.
The situation can be made worse by the fact that depression often goes undiagnosed and unnoticed even by people close to a person.
It’s important to note here that people with depression should not feel they are on an irremediable slide downward. Numerous people with depression and other mental and emotional health challenges learn—typically with professional help—to manage their mental health situations and engage fully with life.
Other mental health conditions, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as traumatic brain injury, can be precipitating factors in suicide. Mood changes and aggressive behavior or conduct disorders can also signal a greater potential for suicide.
Family history is also of great importance in gauging a person’s risk of suicide. Childhood trauma, abuse, and neglect are risk factors. So are a family history of suicide or attempts, and previous attempts on the part of the individual.
A person’s environment can become a major contributing factor. High-stress life events—divorce, the break-up of a relationship, financial downturns, unemployment, and other crises—can become triggers for attempted suicide. Additionally, if a person is the object of bullying or harassment, it can place him or her in a more vulnerable state that could lead to suicide.
Journalists have learned that graphic, dramatic media portrayals of suicide can become a factor for suicidal ideation and attempts in some people, and have adjusted their reporting according to emerging ethical standards on the subject. Statisticians have noted an increase in “copycat” suicides after widely reported or sensationalized media accounts of people who have died by suicide.
The AFSP, researchers such as teams at the Harvard School of Public Health, and other experts have consistently pointed out that one of the biggest risk factors involved in suicide is simply access to guns or other deadly weapons.
Where to find help
First, if you’re experiencing thoughts of suicide, or concerned you might harm yourself, call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or your local trusted crisis line. Or immediately reach out to a licensed and experienced physician or other mental health provider. There is help available from caring, non-judgmental people who will understand your situation and know how to help you.
If you’re hoping to be a source of support for others, understand the warning signs. These include talk of suicide or of having no reason to continue living, feelings of hopelessness, the sense of being trapped, or the sense that one is a burden to others.
Depression, anxiety, feelings of shame, loss of interest in normal activities and human connections, and demonstrations of unusual irritation or anger can all indicate that a person may be feeling suicidal. Experts have also noted that feelings of sudden relief or very quick improvement may signal that a downturn back toward suicidal ideation will follow.
If a loved one steps up their use of alcohol or other stimulants, withdraws from social interaction to an unusual extent, sleeps too little or too much, or shows unusual aggression or fatigue, these could be warning behaviors. Reaching out to others with messages of farewell or giving away beloved possessions are also red flags.
When someone you care about exhibits any of these signs in ways that concern you, you can also contact a trusted and confidential support line or physician’s office. Depending on the situation, you and your loved one can access brief treatment, long-term therapies, and medications.
Protective factors include a sense of community
Experts also tell us that there are certain protective factors that make it less likely a person at risk will attempt suicide. These include access to mental health support, along with a proactive attitude to mental health care. They also include the development of coping skills, ethical beliefs that encourage feelings of meaning and purpose, and connections to family, friends, and community.
Whatever your or your family’s need, your local AFSP chapter can provide links to resources and a strong sense of support and community.