It is difficult to compile accurate statistics on suicide, since many deaths that are actually suicides are ruled to be accidental. Working with available data, however, researchers have been able to put together an incomplete picture. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents in the United States.
There were 31,655 documented suicides in the United States in 2002.
80 percent of suicides are committed by men.
Whites are two times as likely to commit suicide as are African Americans and Hispanics.
More women than men attempt suicide, but four times more men than women complete the act.
The risk of suicide increases with age. White males age 85 and over have a suicide rate six times the national average.
For every suicide completed, there are an estimated eight to 25 attempts.
Statistics give us the numbers but tell us little or nothing about the people who make up the percentages. The following sections look at specific populations, risk factors, and some signs of what to look for if someone you know falls into these groups.
With the hormonal factor of paramount concern here, feelings of loneliness, abandonment, or not fitting in with the in group can lead to depression. Losing a boyfriend or girlfriend can be the trigger for suicidal feelings to surface. Frequently, the desire is not to complete the act, but rather to garner attention and sympathy. For those young people who lack other means of gaining entrée into a desired social setting, a suicide attempt may seem to offer the possibility of attaining that goal.
Teens, especially teens who are not part of the in-crowd, may exhibit signs that show they're fascinated with death. Talk to them about the finality of suicide and how it doesn't solve problems but creates more of them. If you belong to a religious organization, enlist the help of your pastor, rabbi, or minister. Contact your physician for recommendations as to how to proceed.
Copycat or cluster suicides are not uncommon in adolescents. When a teen has committed suicide, the media can be the catalyst that turns one tragic death into a tabloid spectacle and sets a chain reaction of copycat suicide attempts in motion. Through extensive coverage of the suicide, interviews with friends of the young person, and meticulous attention to the grisly details of the death, the media works the romance angle to the max.
Vulnerable teens are paying attention, and those who have been on the fringes of the social scene may see suicide as a way to be noticed. In that strange fantasy, they see themselves finally the center of attention, looking down on grieving friends and family from some celestial viewpoint. Caught up in the delusion, they can't comprehend the finality of the act.
If there has been a teen suicide in your community, be especially aware of what this may mean for your own teenager and be aware of any behaviors or talk that may indicate a fascination with the death.
Substance abuse may also play a role, in that it removes inhibitions. Teenagers who are contemplating suicide may get their “courage fix” with alcohol or drugs.
Women attempt suicide more often than men but succeed less frequently, and may choose a means — such as slashing wrists or taking an overdose — that allows for the possibility that they'll be found before death occurs.
In this case, the goal may be to rekindle a romantic partner's interest or to mend a relationship that has been on the rocks. The reality, of course, is that such a reconciliation may never happen if the suicide turns out to be successful. Also, this attempt may be the final straw that irrevocably severs the romantic relationship.
Women who seriously intend to commit suicide are more likely to use a firearm or other lethal means that do not allow for interception. Always take any mention of suicide seriously. Don't assume someone is merely looking for attention.
Some of the same factors that account for men not seeking help for physical ailments also apply to the mental health sector. When there is a depressive disorder, men may find themselves without the necessary coping tools and may feel impotent to deal with their problems. They may then turn to thoughts of suicide.
While women may attempt suicide four times more frequently than men, men tend to complete the act more often than women do. Men tend to use more lethal means, such as guns or hanging themselves, which don't give a window of time during which they can be found and rescued before death occurs. Men may also remove themselves from locations where they are likely to be intercepted. If someone says that he is thinking about suicide, take this seriously.
You probably won't have the luxury of finding him quickly, in time to help, before he succeeds with the act.
Isolation is a major risk factor for suicide, and the elderly can be the most isolated of all our subpopulations. If isolation is coupled with physical illness and incapacitation, the risk increases exponentially. The tragedy here is that many elderly folks see their physicians on a regular basis but may not let their doctors know about their symptoms of depression.
If an older person makes a suicide attempt, his overall physical condition may not permit full recovery. That may lead to a deepening depression and a subsequent and successful attempt. The tragedy here is that the depression could have been treated. Age should not be a death sentence.