Employee & Community Health

Preventing Suicide: Understanding risk factors, warning signs, treatment

9/7/2016 by Dr. Craig Sawchuk and Dr. Jocelyn Lebow

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In 2015, approximately 43,000 people took their own lives, which placed suicide as the 10th leading cause of death. Earlier this year, the National Center for Health Statistics released numbers showing: 

  • Rate of suicides in the United States increased by 24% between 1999 and 2014. 
  • Suicide rates increased for both males and females across all age groups. 
  • Young and adolescent girls, age 10-14, and men between the ages of 45-64 showed the sharpest percentage increase. 

The sobering reality is that 100% of these self-inflicted deaths are preventable. 

Be aware of risk factors 

The first step toward reversing these numbers is better understanding of the risk factors for suicide. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention identifies the top factors to be assessed as: 

  • Health (depression, anxiety, substance abuse, chronic medical conditions, pain, etc.)
  • Social/environmental (chronic stress, significant loss, isolation, conflict with family members or friends, etc.)
  • Historical (previous suicide attempts, family history of suicide)

Times of severe economic hardship, such as the Great Depression, tend to be associated with increased suicide rates. 

For adolescents and children, bullying -- both face-to-face and cyberbullying -- has been strongly correlated with suicidal thoughts and behavior. Data suggest that being the victim, as well as the perpetrator, of bulling might be linked to increased risk of suicide in youth.

Watch for warning signs

Pay attention to certain warning signs from individuals who may be at risk for harming themselves:

  • Changes in mood, such as severe depression, anger, anxiety or even apathy.
  • Changes in behavior, including isolation, acting impulsively, excessive substance use or deliberately searching for ways to harm oneself. 
  • Talking about not wanting to live, expressive hopelessness that things will not get better or feeling they are a burden to others. 

Help is always available

For those in immediate crisis, help is always available. Call 911, break the trap of isolation by reaching out to others, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK; 1-800-273-8255). 

Talk with your child

For parents concerned about their child, it can be hard to know how to behave. Bringing up your concerns with your child, including asking directly about suicide, is very important. Parents sometimes worry that talking about suicide can "plant ideas" in their child's head, but in reality, talking openly about your concerns and making a family-wide plan to get help is the best way to ensure your child's safety. Visit the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide website for more information. 

Seek treatment

Effective treatments are available to further reduce risk for suicide. Psychotherapy and medications are used to address mental-health problems. Your health care provider can help refer you to local resources. Increasing family and social support also can help rebuild social connections and promote safety. 

Educating yourself about risk factors, warning signs and available treatments can begin a new trend toward reducing the risk for suicide. 

Dr. Craig Sawchuk is a clinical psychologist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Integrated Behavioral Health (IBH). He is an associate professor of Psychiatry and vice-chair of IBH. His primary clinical and research interests include increasing access to evidence-based treatments for anxiety and depression. 

Dr. Jocelyn Lebow is a child and adolescent psychologist with IBH. She specializes in treating children and adolescents with a wide range of symptoms, including depression, anxiety, interpersonal stressors, trauma and eating disorders. Her primary research interests include improving identification, prevention and early intervention for child and adolescent eating disorders.