Suicide: Know the risk factors and signs

The statistics are sobering and to many people, surprising: Suicide is among the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Connecticut, it is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 34 and the fourth leading cause for ages 35 to 54.

“Suicide is an epidemic,” said Matthew Goldenberg, MD, chief of Psychiatric Emergency Services at Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital and associate professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. “More than 123 Americans take their own lives every day, and the number has been growing.”

Oct. 10 was World Mental Health Day, an opportunity to raise awareness about depression, anxiety and other conditions and learn the risk factors and signs, said Beth Klink, licensed clinical social worker, Yale New Haven Psychiatric Hospital. Suicide risk factors include, but are not limited to:

  • Family history of suicide
  • Previous suicide attempt(s)
  • History of mental disorders, particularly clinical depression
  • History of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Feelings of hopelessness, isolation, loss (relational, social, work or financial)

Dr. Goldenberg noted that while mental illness is a major cause of suicide, not all of these risk factors are medical.

“Over half the people who die by suicide do not have a diagnosed mental illness,” he said. “Some of this is because people with mental illness have not accessed treatment and been diagnosed.”

He believes broader influences are compounding these risk factors and contributing to the rise in suicides. Economic downturns lead to unemployment and financial woes; increasing reliance on technology and social media can mean fewer face-to-face relationships; declining involvement in social organizations leads to greater isolation; and a shortage of mental health treatment resources makes it harder for people to get help.

How do you know if a loved one, friend or coworker is at risk? Look for significant variation in their behavior, which can occur suddenly or gradually, Klink said. Signs of mental health conditions that could increase suicide risk include tearfulness, hopelessness, helplessness, irritability, insomnia and anxiety. The person may struggle to compensate for these feelings or behaviors, which can affect daily functioning.

The good news is that depression accompanied by suicidal thoughts is highly treatable, with medication and/or psychotherapy, and help with problem-solving and navigating difficult life circumstances.

“Professional treatment can be very helpful to treat mental illness, and there are other ways to improve our mental health that don’t involve formal treatment,” Dr. Goldenberg said. “Engaging in activities you enjoy, being with people you enjoy and finding meaning in life are all contributors to mental health.”