An Introduction to Suicide

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
04 Apr 2005

Suicide is an irrational desire to die. We use the term "irrational" here because no matter how bad a person's life is, suicide is a permanent solution to what is nearly always a temporary problem. Suicide is a symptom and sign of serious depression. Depression is a treatable disorder, but often the treatment takes time, energy and effort on the part of the person who's feeling depressed. Sometimes, as a person who is depressed feels the energizing effects of an antidepressant medication, they will still feel depressed, but have more energy. It is during this time in treatment that many people turn to suicide and suicidal acts.

Suicide's effects are tragic and felt long after the individual has taken their own life. It is usually the second or third leading cause of death amongst teenagers, and remains one of the top ten leading causes of death well into middle-age. A person who dies by suicide leaves behind them a tangled confusion of family members and friends who try to make sense of a senseless and purposeless act.

Most people who think about suicide, however, never make a "serious" attempt at it (every attempt, though, is viewed as "serious" by the person making it). For every attempted suicide, there is thought to be one or more people where the thought of suicide has never translated into an actual attempt. With over a half a million people making a suicidal attempt each year, this translates into a huge problem that society largely ignores or tries to sweep under the rug. Prevention efforts largely target teenagers, but few professionals feel comfortable dealing with people who are actively suicidal. In most communities, the health care system is also not well-equipped to deal with the magnitude of the problem or the specific needs of a person who is suicidal.

Suicidal behavior is complex. Some risk factors vary with age, gender and ethnic group and may even change over time. The risk factors for suicide frequently occur in combination. Research has shown that 90 percent of people who kill themselves have depression or another diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorder.

Adverse life events in combination with other strong risk factors, such as depression, may lead to suicide. Suicide and suicidal behavior, however, are not normal responses to the stresses experienced by most people. Most people who experience one or more risk factors do not become suicidal. Other risk factors include:

  • Prior suicide attempt
  • Family history of mental or substance abuse disorder
  • Family history of suicide
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse
  • Firearms in the home
  • Incarceration
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, including family members, peers and/or via the media in news or fiction stories.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Oct 2013
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I have not failed 10,000 times. I found 10,000 ways that won't work.
~ Thomas Edison