Every year, tens of thousands of Americans die from suicide. It is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24, amounting to about 4,600 deaths a year. Suicide is also the 10th leading cause of death of Americans older than age 10, killing more people than car crashes or any other cause of injury, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"For reasons we don't fully understand, some people reach such depths of despair and pain that they begin to believe that they would be better off dead," said Dr. John Campo, the chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
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 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. (In 2013, about 41,100 people committed suicide in the United States, according to the CDC).
Men are four times more likely than women to kill themselves, and 79 percent of U.S. suicides are completed by men, the CDC said. 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.
"Women more likely to attempt suicide, and men more likely to complete [it]," Campo said.
There are racial disparities in suicide, as well. American Indians, Alaskan Natives and white 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, according to the CDC.
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, researchers found. The number of deaths from car wrecks dropped 25 percent in that same time period.
An increase in suicides among middle-age Americans from 2005 to 2010 may be in response to the economic recession of 2007, a 2015 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found. Also, adolescents and young adults in rural areas are more likely to commit suicide than those in urban regions, a 2015 study in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found.
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
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, childhood trauma or who have impulsive aggression are more likely to commit suicide themselves, Campo said. 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
- panic attacks
- social isolation
- 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).
Many suicidal people struggle intensely with ambivalence, and it's important to guide them toward help, Campo said.
"They want to live, they want to die," Campo said. "People are in a quandary. They're in terrible pain. The important thing for suicidal people to understand is that it passes."
If someone you know is acting suicidal, the AFSP recommends talking with them immediately and openly. Many people view suicide as a taboo subject, and Campo told Live Science that he often has to ask his patients repeatedly about suicide before they admit to thinking about or planning their death.
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.
"Your goal isn't so much to really talk them out of it," Campo said. "Your goal is to help engage them and get them involved with some help so that they can get the treatment that they need."
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.