By Arshad Siddiqui, MD
Millions of Americans have serious thoughts of suicide each year, and while suicide rates fell by nearly 6 percent in 2020, more than 44,000 people took their own lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Generally, when people contemplate suicide, it is because they feel hopeless and believe that life will not get any better.
In most cases, they also have an underlying mental health issue, diagnosed or undiagnosed.
Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health offers a variety of programs for those who are dealing with suicidal thoughts. Inpatient and outpatient programs are designed to help men, women and children address mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or a combination of both. Specialized programs are also available to help first responders cope.
A Leading Cause of Death
After three decades of rising suicide rates, preliminary data from the CDC indicates that in 2020 rates had their largest drop in four years.
Though it is unknown exactly why rates fell, especially during a year when the COVID-19 pandemic caused extreme stress and isolation, some attribute the improvement to better access to mental health care and increased awareness.
This is encouraging news, but with the decline, suicide remains the 12th leading cause of death in the United States.
What’s more, the CDC estimates that in 2019, 12 million adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned for suicide and 1.4 million attempted suicides. Estimates for 2020 are not yet available.
It is important to note that in June 2021, the CDC reported that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among U.S. girls aged 12 to 17 rose by nearly 51% between February and March 2020, versus the same period in 2019. The rate for boys in this age group also increased but by a much lesser amount (3%). The CDC offers prevention advice, including increasing social connections, teaching coping skills, learning signs of suicide risk and how to respond, and limiting access to medications and firearms.
Depression Increases Risk
There is no single cause of suicide or attempted suicide, but there are many factors that can contribute to feelings of hopelessness and despair, including economic stress, cultural upheaval, chronic pain, and relationship problems.
In addition, conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance problems — especially when left undiagnosed and untreated — increase the risk for suicide.
In fact, 90% of people who die by suicide have a coexisting mental health condition, according to the CDC. It is important to note, however, that most people with mental health conditions do not take their own lives.
Other risk factors for suicide include:
• A history of suicide attempts
• Family history of suicide
• Exposure to family violence
• Easy access to weapons
• Exposure, either directly or indirectly, to others’ suicidal behavior, such as that of family members, peers, or celebrities
• Feeling alone or isolated
• Recent release from prison or jail
Recognizing the warning signs and knowing when to get help is key to preventing suicide.
The National Institute of Mental Health advises to pay serious attention if you notice someone close to you is engaging in the following activities:
• Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
• Talking about feeling empty or hopeless with no reason to live
• Acquiring or searching online for pills, a gun, or other lethal methods
• Talking about feeling guilty or ashamed
• Withdrawing from family and friends
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Taking extreme risks, such as driving too fast
• Talking often about death
• Experiencing extreme mood swings
• Giving away important possessions
• Saying goodbye to friends and family
• Putting affairs in order
If you notice any of these warning signs, talk to your loved one. Share your concerns in a non-threatening and non-judgmental way and suggest that they consider professional help.
Help is Available
There are many treatment options available for people who are contemplating suicide, usually involving a combination of talk therapy, psychotherapy, and medications.
At Princeton House Behavioral Health, care is provided by board certified psychiatrists and master’s level social workers, therapists, and addiction counselors.
Treatment programs include a comprehensive evaluation, personalized treatment planning, evidence-based treatment, group and individual therapy, expressive therapies like art and music, and psychoeducation groups with an emphasis on family involvement and support.
In addition to professional treatment, leading a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and spending time with friends or family can also help lessen thoughts of suicide and depression.
Moreover, one of the most effective ways to reduce suicide risk is to ensure people have some sort of connection or sense of belonging to something, such as a network of family or friends, a religious or spiritual organization, a community group or anything else that encourages connections with other people for a common purpose.
You are Not Alone
If you have suicidal thoughts, it is important to realize that you are not alone and to reach out for help. Try to seek help from a mental health professional, or if you have trouble finding one, talk to a friend, family member, school counselor, or clergy member who might be able to help.
If you are in a crisis situation, reach out to a 24-hour crisis line such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), call 9-1-1, or go directly to the emergency room.
For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health visit www.princetonhouse.org or call 888-437-1610.
Arshad Siddiqui, MD, is a board certified psychiatrist on staff at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.