Suicide refers to when someone harms themselves with the intent to end their life. The reasons that people attempt suicide are varied and complex, but they often involve severe emotional or physical pain that a person finds unbearable.
This information comes from Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE).
It can be difficult for people to understand why someone would want to harm themselves. However, suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
This article will look at some of the reasons that a person might consider suicide, the link between mental health and suicide, and the role of suicidal thoughts.
It will also discuss some ways to help someone who is contemplating suicide and some of the support resources available.
Suicide refers to when a person intentionally ends their own life. Sometimes, people use the term “commit suicide” to describe this. However, the word “commit” implies criminality, which can reinforce harmful stigma.
There are many potential reasons that a person may consider suicide. Often, it is the result of long-term difficulties with thoughts, feelings, or experiences that the individual feels that they cannot bear any longer.
Among other things, a person contemplating suicide may feel:
- sadness or grief
- intense guilt
- rage, or a desire to seek revenge
- that they are a burden to others
- that they have no worth or value
- that life is not worth living
- that they are trapped, either physically or emotionally
- that things will never get better
- intense physical or emotional pain
Many factors can contribute to a person feeling this way. It may be due to events happening in their life. Mind, a charity in the United Kingdom, list the following examples of scenarios that may lead to suicide:
- the loss of a loved one
- bullying, discrimination, or abuse
- the end of a relationship
- a major change in life circumstances, such as divorce, unemployment, retirement, or homelessness
- receiving a diagnosis of a life changing illness
- problems with money
- being in prison
- pregnancy or pregnancy loss
- questioning one’s sexual or gender identity in an environment that is not accepting of this
- certain cultural practices, such as forced marriage
- surviving a traumatic event
However, suicide does not always occur because of a specific life event, and not everyone who experiences these events will consider suicide. People respond to adversity in different ways.
According to the NIMH, suicide is more prevalent among certain groups. These include people who:
- are aged 15–24 years
- are over the age of 60 years
- have a mental health or substance abuse disorder
- have a family history of mental health or substance abuse disorders
- have a family history of suicide
- have experienced family violence or abuse, such as physical, sexual, or psychological abuse
- are in prison
- have a severe or chronic illness
- have access to firearms or other weapons
Males are more likely to die by suicide than females. However, females are more likely to attempt suicide. Attempted suicide occurs when a person tries to end their life but does not die as a result of their actions.
This may be due to a difference in preferred methods. According to the NIMH, for example, males are more likely to use lethal methods that are difficult to treat.
Mental health conditions are a significant risk factor for suicide. SAVE estimate that around 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental health condition.
Some examples of conditions that may contribute to suicidal thoughts or intent include:
- substance abuse disorders
- depressive disorders
- borderline personality disorder
- bipolar disorder
- anxiety-based disorders
However, it is important to note that although mental health conditions can increase the risk of suicide, they are also very common. Additionally, according to the U.K. charity Samaritans, not everyone who considers suicide has a diagnosed mental health condition.
Social isolation, a lack of support, and untreated or mistreated mental health conditions place people at higher risk of suicide, while having appropriate access to healthcare and support lowers this risk.
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Some people exhibit warning signs that they are considering suicide. SAVE state that it is important to take notice if someone is:
- talking about wanting to die
- talking about feeling trapped, feeling hopeless, or being in unbearable pain
- talking about being a burden to others
- planning or looking for ways to harm themselves, such as acquiring firearms or other weapons, stocking up on medications, or searching online
- withdrawing from family and friends
- using drugs and alcohol more often
- eating or sleeping more or less than normal
- acting in an anxious, agitated, or reckless manner
- experiencing severe mood shifts
However, not everybody exhibits these warning signs when they are considering suicide. The best way to find out for certain whether or not someone is considering suicide is to talk to them.
Some people believe that talking about suicide can cause others to experience suicidal thoughts. However, research has shown this is not true.
For example, one 2014 review found that talking about suicide does not increase the risk of it. In fact, it may even decrease the risk by allowing people to share any thoughts and feelings that they are struggling with.
Although talking to someone about their thoughts of suicide may feel intrusive, it could save their life. Some examples of ways to start a conversation include:
- “How have you been feeling?”
- “Do you ever feel so bad you think about suicide?”
- “Have you been having suicidal thoughts?”
Samaritans recommend listening to what the person has to say without judgment, using a technique known as active listening. This involves:
- focusing on the other person, with no distractions
- asking open-ended questions
- giving someone time to articulate what they want to say
- repeating things back to them, to show understanding
Experiencing suicidal thoughts does not always mean that a person will kill themselves. Samaritans state that around 1 in 5 people think about suicide at some point in their lives. Often, this is in response to a temporary feeling or situation.
In many cases, people who experience thoughts about suicide do not act on them. However, if a person has suicidal intent, it means that they have made a decision and intend to act on these thoughts.
This is an important distinction to make, as having suicidal intent indicates that someone needs immediate help.
If someone intends to end their own life, it is important to act quickly.
- Asking the question: Ask the person if they have a plan to end their life. If so, ask them how and when they plan to do it.
- Calling for help: If a person is in immediate danger, call 911, go to an emergency room at a hospital, or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Hard-of-hearing or deaf people can contact Lifeline at 800-799-4889.
- Taking their reasons seriously: While talking to the person, do not try to convince them that their problems are not that bad. Instead, listen to them, acknowledge how they feel, and reassure them that it is possible to get help.
- Not keeping their plan a secret: Although trust is important, keeping a person’s planned method of suicide a secret can put their life at risk. It is essential to let medical professionals or caregivers know how they intend to end their life, so that they can remove any sources of danger.
People can also use these steps to help others online. The following social media sites, as well as some others, have ways to report suicidal content:
People who consider suicide do not always want to die. Often, people consider suicide because they feel hopeless and cannot think of a way out of their current situation. Intervention can help a person regain a sense of hope or show them another perspective.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.
It is a common misconception that people who talk about or attempt suicide do so for attention and, therefore, do not need help. However, any suicidal thoughts or behaviors indicate severe distress. As a result, it is important to take them seriously.
Even if a person does not intend to kill themselves, talking about suicide or acting in a self-destructive manner can indicate that they need mental health support.
There are many reasons that a person might consider suicide. Some people consider suicide due to specific events or life experiences, while others may do so because of a physical or mental health condition that causes them unbearable pain.
The reasons that people take their lives are not always clear, but having open conversations about suicide can help alleviate a person’s pain.
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Last medically reviewed on January 15, 2021