Surprising New Findings about Suicide


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Risk factors for suicide - know the signs and save a life. Image by Decoded Science

Risk factors for suicide – know the signs and save a life. Image by Decoded Science

A spate of recent research studies from across the globe about the causes of suicide provide insight into the conditions contributing to suicidal intent. Some of the findings fly in the face of conventional wisdom, giving mental health practitioners food for thought about how to approach and anticipate self-injury attempts.

Certain demographics seem more suicide-prone, but motivations for suicide vary among individuals. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., so understanding risk factors, and adjusting accordingly, could strongly impact American society.

High Suicide Rate Among Psychiatric Patients?

An Australian study published in May 2013 examined histories of mental health patients to determine what is causing the gap between death rates in the general public, and those of psychiatric patients. The researchers, led by David Lawrence, reviewed the mortality rates of 292,585 psychiatric patients in Western Australia and discovered that suicide is not the primary reason for early end of life.

When comparing the life expectancy rates of mental health patients to those of the general public, they found that a wide gap: A sixteen years’ difference for males, and a difference of twelve years for females. That gap has widened since 1985. The excessive number deaths of mental health patients is primarily due to physical health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer. Physical health problems caused 77.7 percent of excessive deaths, while suicide accounted for only 13.9 percent.

Who Commits Suicide?

So if mental health patients don’t necessarily commit suicide, who does? An April 2013 wide-sweeping study on individuals who had committed suicide provided new revelations about suicidal behavior, finding a variety of new risk factors. A team of researchers, led by Dr. C. Crump, examined Swedish census records from 2001 through 2008 to determine suicidal risk factors, including sociodemographic, somatic and psychiatric factors. Not surprisingly, all psychiatric disorders, and especially depression, presented as strong risk factors for death from suicide, but that’s not all.

More interestingly, physical illness, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), cancer, asthma and stroke were all significant risk factors among both males and females. Sociodemographic factors that increased risk for men include being unmarried or unemployed, or having low levels of education or income. For women, the strongest environmental risk factor is unemployment, while being unmarried is the strongest for men.

Suicidal Thoughts Can Spread

In May 2013, two Canadian researchers, Drs. Swanson and Colman, examined suicide among teenagers. By reviewing survey responses from thousands of Canadian teenagers, they learned that exposure to suicide might increase suicidal risk. Having a schoolmate who committed suicide increased both suicidal thoughts and attempts among teenagers. Furthermore, personally knowing someone who died by suicide was linked to suicidality for at least two years afterward. This research suggests that the idea of attempting suicide can be sparked by peers’ behavior, or that suicidality is somewhat contagious.

Sleep Deprivation: Catch Some Zzzzs

Linden Oliver, MA, a Pennsylvania researcher, found in a 2013 study that sleep is correlated with suicide risk. Insomnia and sleep loss not only contribute to depression and poor decision-making, they seem to increase moderate and high suicide risk. By studying subjects with insomnia and suicidal risk, Oliver learned that every additional hour of sleep is attended by a decrease of 72 percent in risk of suicide. Thus, lack of sleep strongly promotes suicidal behavior.

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