Building Knowledge to Help Prevent Suicide

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that each year approximately one million people die from suicide, which represents a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000 or one death every 40 seconds. It is predicted that by 2020 the rate of death will increase to one every 20 seconds. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for adults 35 to 54 years old and the second leading cause of death for youth and young adults aged 10 to 34 years. But there is hope. New research is helping us understand who is at greatest risk - and this understanding will help psychiatrists and the mental health field at large save lives. 

For instance, some recent important studies have focused on:

Connections with Diagnosed Mental Illnesses: Researchers at a University in Canada looked at the connections between mental illness and suicide over time in a nationally representative sample. They found an elevated risk of suicide among people with depression, anxiety, substance use and bipolar disorder. However, the suicide risk decreased over time for everyone in the study except for those with bipolar disorder. The authors suggest their findings indicate “that people living with BPD have a persistent elevated hazard of suicide events.”

Firearm Ownership: More than half of suicides result from firearm injuries. In a very large study over 12 years, researchers looked at gun ownership and suicide and found an elevated risk of suicide among a large sample of first-time handgun owners. The rate of suicide by any method was three times higher among male handgun owners than among male non-owners; among females, the rate of suicide was seven times higher among gun owners than non-owners. “These elevated suicide rates among handgun owners were attributable to much higher rates of suicide by firearm,” the authors note. Firearms were used in 89% of the suicides among handgun owners and 33% of those among non-owners.

LGBTQ Youth: Another recent study looked at the particularly vulnerable population of LGBTQ youth. The researchers examined information on nearly 10,000 children and youth ages 10 to 19 who died by suicide. LGBTQ youth were five times more likely to have been bullied compared to heterosexual youth (21% vs 4%). LGBTQ students are nearly twice as likely as heterosexual students to be bullied at school (33% vs 17%) and more than twice as likely to be cyber-bullied compared to heterosexual students (27% vs 13%). LGBTQ students are about four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual students (23% vs 5%).

Coronavirus and Mental Health: The past six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, with its required lockdowns, isolation, uncertainty and economic hardships, have taken a toll on mental health across the board, but some groups have experienced greater impact. According to study, in June, 40% of adults reported struggling with mental health or substance use, including 31% with anxiety/depression, 26% with trauma/stressor related symptoms, 13% with starting or increasing substance use. More than one in ten (11%) of adults had seriously considered suicide.

Groups significantly more likely to report seriously considering suicide included people of color (Hispanic, 18%; Black 15%), essential workers (22%), young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 (26%), unpaid caregivers for adults (31%), and people receiving treatment for a previous mental health conditions (22% - 45%).

With this and other research underway, it is improving suicide prevention efforts. But know that if you or someone you know is experiencing extreme distress, help is available. Contact your healthcare provider or use the resources at the right time.

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