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Suicide: Statistics, Warning Signs and Prevention

suicide, suicide prevention, warning signs
Credit: Antonio Guillem | Shutterstock

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, killing more Americans than car crashes or any other cause of injury.

Though suicide often seems mysterious and unpreventable, it can be stopped, experts say. Talking openly about people's suicidal thoughts and keeping them away from lethal means (such as firearms) can save lives. For immediate help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Improving diagnosis of mental health conditions can help, too. Most people who commit suicide have seen a doctor within the last year, but many do not get diagnosed with the mental illness that will ultimately kill them. [5 Myths About Suicide, Debunked]

Suicide rates and statistics

In 2010, the most recent year comprehensive data is available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 38,364 suicides in the United States. Meanwhile, suicidal thoughts and plans are even more widespread: 8.3 million American adults reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year, 2.2 million went as far as to make plans, and 1 million made a suicide attempt. 

Men are four times more likely than women to kill themselves, and 79 percent of U.S. suicides are completed by men. This disparity is partially due to men choosing more lethal means to kill themselves: 56 percent die by firearm. Women are more likely to attempt suicide by self-poisoning. 

There are racial disparities in suicide, as well. American Indian, Alaskan Natives and whites (particularly men) are at the highest risk. Asian/Pacific Islanders have the lowest suicide rate for men, and African Americans have the lowest rate for women. 

For 10- to 14-year olds, suicide is the third-leading cause of death, with 267 suicides in this age group in 2010. Suicide is also the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, and is the second most common cause of death for 25- to 35-year-olds, after unintentional injury. 

Suicide surpassed car crashes as the No. 1 cause of injury-related death in 2012, researchers reported in November 2012 in the American Journal of Public Health. Between 2000 and 2009, the suicide rate went up 15 percent, that research found. The number of deaths from car wrecks dropped 25 percent in that same time period. 

For reasons not fully understood, suicides are more common in spring. This springtime peak may be the result of a loss of hope as the weather warms but life doesn't seem to improve for the depressed person. Alternatively, increased sociality during warmer months could put extra pressure on someone who is struggling. Some scientists even believe that inflammation from spring allergens could exacerbate mental illness, though those connections are unproven.

Suicide warning signs and prevention

The biggest risk factor for committing suicide is having previously attempted to kill oneself. The vast majority of people who do kill themselves have a mental illness. More than 90 percent of people who kill themselves have a mental disorder, whether depression, bipolar disorder or some other diagnosis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). [Suicide: Red Flags and Warning Signs]

Substance abuse is another risk factor, in part because drugs and alcohol lower inhibitions, making it easier for people to act on their suicidal thoughts. One-third of people who killed themselves in 2009 had alcohol in their systems, according to the CDC. About a fifth (20.8 percent) tested positive for opiates, which include prescription pain medications and heroin. 

People with a family history of suicide are more likely to commit suicide themselves. For people with an underlying mental illness, stressful situations (such as bullying, relationship conflict or unemployment) can increase risk. Suicide can also be contagious, which is why suicide prevention groups advise that media reports about suicide avoid sensationalism or descriptions of the act. 

Immediate warning signs that someone may be in a suicidal crisis include:

  • feelings of hopelessness or desperation
  • insomnia
  • panic attacks
  • social isolation
  • irritability
  • rage
  • feelings of being a burden

Between 50 percent and 75 percent of people who attempt suicide talk about their suicidal thoughts, feelings and plans before the act, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). 

If someone you know is acting suicidal, the AFSP recommends talking with them immediately and openly. Asking about suicidal thoughts does not put those thoughts into people's heads, so finding out if they have a specific plan is important. Let the person know you are concerned and focus on getting them proper mental health treatment instead of trying to talk them out of killing themselves. 

Do not leave a suicidal person alone, and remove drugs, sharp objects and firearms. Access to lethal means during a suicidal crisis is a major risk factor for suicide. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or get the person to a psychiatric clinic or emergency room for help. 

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Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie interned as a science writer at Stanford University Medical School, and also interned at ScienceNow magazine and The Santa Cruz Sentinel. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what her latest project is, you can follow Stephanie on .
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