Suicide: Myth versus Reality
"People who talk about suicide won't really do it."
"If a person is determined to kill herself, nothing is going to stop her."
The reality is that someone who talks about suicide may take his own life. Such talk is a warning signal for suicide and, often, it is a plea for help. Someone who is thinking about suicide can change his mind from moment to moment, so it is never too late to try to talk him out of his suicide plan.1
Every day, 14 young people (ages 15 to 24) commit suicide, or about 1 every 100 minutes.2 Suicide is the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds in the United States;3 it is the second leading cause among 15- to- 19-year-olds.4 Most often, a young white male dies, but the suicide rate among African American young men is on the rise. And, although four times as many young men as young women die from suicide, young women try suicide three times more often. Suicide rates for Native American youth are 1.5 times the national average.5
These are tragic numbers. We know, however, that most youth who commit suicide suffer from a diagnosable mental or substance use disorder, or both.6 It is important to look for signs of substance abuse or depression (see Forreal Article "National Suicide Awareness Week" for facts on signs of depression) and get professional help for your child if he needs it.
Although most depressed people are not suicidal, most suicidal people are depressed.7 A person who has depression or another mental illness does not think like a person who is feeling good about himself. Depression can twist thinking, so a person can't think clearly. Often he doesn't realize he is suffering from a treatable illness, so he feels like he can't be helped.
Substance abuse increases the risk of suicide because alcohol and drugs weaken a person's judgment and increase impulsive behavior. In fact, 53 percent of young people who commit suicide abuse substances.8
There are other risk factors beside depression and substance abuse. These include a family history of suicide, previous suicide attempts, jail time, a stressful event or loss, and being exposed to suicidal behavior in others. Easy access to guns is a critical risk factor because most suicide deaths are the result of gunshots.9 Suicides can occur in a bunchsometimes in response to the suicide of a friend or a celebrity that receives a lot of attention from the media.10
Be aware of the following "signals" from your child, especially if several are present:
- Talking or joking about suicide
- Giving verbal clues about "going away," such as "I shouldn't be here," "I'm going to run away," or "I wish I were dead"
- Previous suicidal thoughts or attempts
- Giving possessions away
- Preoccupation with death and violence in TV shows, movies, drawings, books, or music, or while at play
- Risky behavior, such as jumping from high places, running into traffic, or self-cutting
- Having several accidents resulting in injury; "close calls" or "brushes with death."
- Obsession with guns and knives.11
What To Do
If you see danger signs in your child, ask if he is depressed or thinking about suicide. You will not be putting dangerous thoughts into his head. Instead, asking shows him that you care and that he is not alone.12 Don't leave him alone. If you suspect your child has a mental illness or a substance abuse problem, get him the help that he needs even if he resists. Most important, take seriously any suicide talk. If your child or someone else you know is thinking about suicide, call 1-800-SUICIDE to find a crisis center in your area.
1Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, last referenced 4/21/2003.
2American Psychiatric Association. "Teen Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.
3National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. "Hot Topics: Youth Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.
4American Psychiatric Association. "Teen Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.
5National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. "Hot Topics: Youth Suicide," last referenced 4/22/2003.
6Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2002. "Youth risk behavior surveillance -- United States, 2001." CDC Surveillance Summaries, June 28, 2002. MMWR 51(No. SS04): 1-64, last referenced 4/21/2003.
7American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. "Facts About Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.
8American Psychiatric Association. "Teen Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.
9National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. "Hot Topics: Youth Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.
11Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. "Suicide: Identifying High Risk Children & Adolescents," last referenced 4/21/2003.
12Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. "Common Misconceptions About Suicide," last referenced 4/21/2003.