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Suicide and Suicidal Behavior

At Risk for Suicide

Suicide is the act of taking one’s own life. It is one of the top causes of death in America. According to the latest statistics published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide was the tenth leading cause of death in 2009 (CDC, 2009).

Depression is not the only risk factor for suicide. Several risk factors contribute to thoughts of suicide, attempted suicide, and actual suicide. They include:

  • previous suicide attempts
  • depression
  • substance abuse (often accompanying an underlying mental disorder)
  • mental disorders
  • incarceration
  • being exposed to suicidal behavior
  • taking antidepressant medications
  • history of being abused or witnessing continuous abuse

Those who have been shown to be at a higher risk for suicide are:

  • men
  • people between the ages of 20 and 24
  • American Indian or Alaskan Natives
  • non-Hispanic white males

Men are more likely to attempt suicide than women. In addition, older men and women are more likely to attempt suicide than young men and women.

If at any time, you feel you may attempt suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Causes for Increased Suicide Risk

Many factors increase the risk for suicide. These risks are separated into three categories: biopsychosocial, environmental, and socio-cultural.


Biopsychosocial causes account for most suicides and attempted suicides. These causes include mental disorders such as:

  • mood disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • anxiety disorders
  • personality disorders

Additional biopsychosocial causes include:

  • substance abuse
  • alcohol abuse
  • being bullied
  • physical abuse
  • family history of suicide
  • unsuccessful suicide attempt
  • having a chronic disease


One of the main causes of suicide in the socio-cultural category is the feeling of being isolated or not being accepted by others. Feelings of isolation can be caused by sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and gender identity.

Other possible suicide catalysts from this category include:

  • difficulty seeking help
  • not having access to mental health care or treatment for abuse
  • following belief systems that accept suicide as a solution to personal problems
  • exposure to suicidal behavior


Environmental factors that increase the risk for suicide often stem from a loss. This may include the loss of a person, pet, or job. Other causes include:

  • social loss
  • access to lethal means
  • being exposed to local suicide clusters

Recognizing Symptoms: When to Get Help

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK if you:

  • feel hopeless
  • feel trapped
  • increase drug use or drinking
  • feel alone
  • constantly feel anxious or agitated
  • are unable to sleep or sleep too much
  • experience mood changes
  • think of suicide as a way out
  • feel as if there is no reason to live

Signs That Someone May Attempt Suicide

You can’t see what a person is feeling on the inside, so it’s not always easy to identify someone who is feeling suicidal. However, some outward signs that a person may be contemplating suicide include:

  • hearing the person say that he or she wants to end his or her life or that he or she has no reason to live
  • observing evidence that he or she is looking for means to commit suicide, such as buying a gun
  • observing an increase in drug or alcohol abuse
  • noticing that he or she is withdrawing from people
  • noticing that he or she is displaying reckless behavior or quick agitation
  • observing that he or she is giving away belongings

Diagnosing and Assessing Suicide Risks

Your doctor may tell you that he or she believes you are at a high risk for suicide based on your symptoms, personal history, and family history. If your doctor feels that a mental disorder is contributing to suicidal thoughts, he or she will refer you to a mental healthcare specialist.

These specialists will talk with you about your symptoms and try to find out how often you experience them. This will help to uncover what disorder you are likely to have and which tests are needed to confirm the disorder.

Tell your doctor if you have an anxiety disorder or another mental condition for which you are currently taking medication. Some medications increase the risk for suicide attempts.

Treatment for People at Risk for Suicide

Treatment for people who are at risk for suicide will depend upon medical background and underlying reasons that he or she is thinking about attempting suicide.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy (psychotherapy) is one method of treatment for those who are at risk for suicide. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy often used for suicidal patients is. CBT teaches people ways to work through the stress that causes suicidal feelings. This type of treatment helps train the way a person thinks and gives him or her ideas of what to do when he or she thinks about attempting suicide.


If talk therapy isn’t enough to successfully reduce your risks, a doctor or therapist may prescribe a medication like clozapine to reduce thoughts of suicide. This medication is FDA-approved to treat suicide risks in people suffering from schizophrenia. Your doctor may prescribe a different medication to lower your risk.

How to Reduce Suicide Risks

Threatening suicide is not a display for attention. It is not a normal reaction to stressful situations, either. A suicide threat should be taken seriously. Seek medical help immediately if you feel suicidal. If you aren’t near a hospital, or you feel you want to talk to someone, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. They have trained staff available to speak to you 24 hours a day.

Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Published on: Jun 14, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Jan 27, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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