Melissa Muller: Be aware of risk factors (National Suicide Prevention Week)

suicide logoBy Melissa Muller 

Sept. 7 through Sept. 13 is National Suicide Prevention Week. What does this actually mean? The point is to draw attention to the suicide epidemic in our country. Suicide is a national public health problem. The year 2010 was the most recent year that statistics for suicides were nationally reported (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention). That year there were over 38,000 Americans who took their lives. That is 12 deaths out of every 100,000.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. Sadly, 90-percent of those who took their lives had a treatable mental health disorder at the time of suicide. It is estimated that there are one million suicide attempts a year that do not end in death. This week, if we all learn some facts about suicide and suicide prevention maybe we can each make a difference in the life of an individual contemplating suicide. Hopefully, we may save some lives.

This is the idea behind National Suicide Prevention week. There are many risk factors individuals may have that make them potentially more likely to commit suicide. Mental health issues are a large factor. Specifically, mood disorders (depression and bipolar disorder), schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.

Previous attempts at suicide increase the risk of attempting again. A family history of suicide increases an individual’s risk because the taboo of suicide has been broken or maybe there is a genetic predisposition to the above mentioned disorders. Serious medical conditions are also a risk factor.

Environmental stressors also increase the risk of suicide. Stressful, unremitting life events such as financial struggles, relationship problems, unemployment, poverty, alcohol or substance abuse, and problems with the law are examples of life’s stressors. Any of these coupled with any of the risk factors above will increase the risk of suicide.

There are a few populations in which the suicide rate is highest. In the elderly, men in midlife, the adolescent Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered (LGBT) population, adolescents, and members of the armed forces or veterans. The elderly experience feelings of loneliness, a loss of independence, loss of spouses or partners, and undiagnosed depression, which can make them more susceptible to suicide.

Men in midlife may face financial stress or relationship problems. Men are more likely to take their lives at this stage of life than are woman. The difficulties adolescents face being LGBT paired with adolescent’s experimenting with substance use, impulsiveness, risky behaviors and the stress of being an adolescent raise their suicide rate. The overall adolescent population/ young adult population also has a high rate of suicide from impulsiveness, substance abuse, and high risk behaviors. This age group does not have the experience to understand that when bad things happen they can and will get better.

Members of the armed forces and veterans also have a high rate of suicide due to exposure to trauma and long separations from loved ones.

With the recent suicide of Robin Williams we realize no one is immune to the risk of suicide. Williams had a history of depression and had recently been diagnosed with a serious disease. Additionally, he had a history of substance abuse problems. Sadly, no one was able to identify the warning signs and risk factors before he took his life.

There are some positive protective factors that can decrease the risk of suicide. If an individual has positive connections to family, friends, community, and religion and has good problem solving skills this can mitigate the risk factors and help with resiliency.

Some of the warnings signs an individual may show when he or she is at risk of attempting suicide are:

  • Feelings of hopelessness, feeling trapped, humiliated, or being a burden to others.
  • Hoarding medicines or owning firearms increases the risk.
  • Withdrawing from others and isolating are behaviors that indicate serious depression and a possible suicide risk.

Some examples of things an individual contemplating suicide may say:

  • “I want to kill myself.”
  • “I want this pain to end.”
  • “I am going to shoot myself.”

Fifty to 70-percent of attempters will tell someone they are planning to do it. Hearing these statements is adefinite sign of suicide risk.

If we are all aware of these risk factors and warning signs we can make it a point to reach out to those in need — but what can we do for them? It is important to ask someone who appears to be struggling if they are thinking of taking their life. Don’t be scared to ask this and to express concern. Don’t argue with the individual but focus on the positives in their life. Someone who is suicidal has given up all hope.

Try to help them create some hope and something to live for. Tell them who their death will hurt and what they have to live for. Encourage the suicidal individual to seek professional help. If the individual expresses a specific plan to harm him or herself do not leave the person alone. Remove all drugs, guns, knives, and other sharp objects from the vicinity.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a great resource for people who need it. There are 24 hour counselors available to talk to callers. Provide the number to those in need: 1-800-273-8255.

Let’s all take a moment this week to learn the risk factors, warning signs, and ways to help those in deep emotional pain. Maybe it will save a life.

Melissa Muller is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at Psychological Services of St. Augustine

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