Suicide: The Facts


Suicide: “Someone taking their own life because they feel like they can’t handle their circumstances anymore.” – Daniel 20

“In the past 25 years the rate of suicide for young people (ages 15-24) has tripled, while the rate of suicide in the general population has actually decreased (Focus Adolescent Services). It is alarming that suicide is the third leading cause of death and represents 12.3% of all deaths in this age group” (American Association of Suicidology, Youth Suicide Fact Sheet, p. 1). Also disturbing is the fact that for every completed suicide there are as many as 8-25 attempts. (National Institute of Mental Health, Suicide Facts and Statistics, p. 1).

One possible reason for the growing rate of suicide in young people might be due to an increase of access to guns. Regardless of race or gender, firearms remain the most common method of suicide (American Association of Suicidology, Youth Suicide Fact Sheet, p. 1).

Because so many of the people who attempt suicide have major depression, the signs that someone is thinking about attempting suicide can be the same as the signs for depression (American Association of Suicidology, Youth Fact Sheet, p. 3). It is important to remember though that just because someone has some of the warning signs of suicide does not necessarily mean they are thinking of attempting suicide. 


Some of the Causes of Suicide


Suicide deaths can be the result of many complex factors in a person that include genetics, biology of the brain, and mental illness. Amongst teen suicide attempters, at least 90% had at least one major kind of psychiatric disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder (Gould, Shaffer, & Greenberg, 2003, 15). Other risk factors include substance abuse, conduct disorder, and prior suicide attempts (Gould, et. al, 2003, 15). There are also cognitive factors such as hopelessness and poor problem solving ability that can enter in to the situation (Gould, et. al, 2003, 19).

A major biological factor in depression and suicide is a low level of a brain chemical called serotonin (Gould, et al., 2003, 24). Anti-depressant drugs can help in this respect, but only a physician can make a diagnosis and prescribe the proper medication.

Environment can also play a role in suicidal behavior. Negative influences such as neighborhood, peer influences, or the parental relationship can interact with “specific personality or tempermental traits” and increase the tendency towards impulsive and risk taking behaviors (King, Ruchkin, & Schwab-Stone, 2003, p. 43). These influences can also hold a person from the development of emotional coping skills, reasoning abilities and moral development (King, et. al, 2003, 43).

Deep and long lasting trauma such as the unexpected death of a loved one, physical or sexual abuse, alcohol or drug use, or surviving a natural disaster can play an important role, as well (Sarafolean, 2000, p. 3). Also, a family history of depression, substance abuse, or suicidal behavior can increase the risk factor for suicide amongst teenagers (Gould, 2003, 20).


Suicide and Major Life Events


Some researchers have discovered that many adolescent suicide attempts are triggered by personal and social conflicts. For instance, such triggers of suicidal thought or behavior could be a recent major event like an unplanned pregnancy, the loss of a family member, or distress over sexual orientation (American Association of Suicidology, Youth Fact Sheet, p. 3).

Major Life Events

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is a mental illness that is often the result of physical or sexual abuse, serious accidents (car accidents), natural disasters (Hurricane Katrina, for example), or violent attack (rape, bullying). PTSD is different from depression, but it can often coexist (Focus Adolescent Services, 2000, p. 1).

Remember, suicide is usually not a spontaneous reaction, but rather it is usually a combination of processes built on many different factors like those mentioned above. Unfortunately, suicide can be difficult to predict. Sometimes seemingly “minor” problems might actually set off suicidal thoughts, such as a shocking experience like the break-up of a relationship, or a nasty disagreement with a friend. Suicidal thoughts can often be a reaction to ongoing stressors in life, which can lead some teens to feel that things will never get better (American Association of Suicidology, Youth Suicide Fact Sheet).

The inability to cope or deal with traumatic or major events might be at the heart of explaining why some young people commit suicide. Learning how to cope with traumatic events may help reduce the numbers of teen suicide.


Some young adults have a difficult time dealing with the college experience. In 1998, suicide was the second leading cause of death in 20-24 year olds. Coping with new and unfamiliar environments and academic and social pressures can prove too much for some to bear (American Association of Suicidology, Youth Suicide Fact Sheet, p. 3).

It is not just college students who can feel overwhelmed by pressure. Many teens feel that expectations of them can be too demanding. High expectations may lead to constant disappointment. An already depressed teen can be pushed over the edge simply by failing a test or not getting into a specific school they were aiming for (Peters, 1985, p. 2).

It is very important to remember that suicide and suicidal behavior are not normal responses to stress! It is very normal to feel stressed and overwhelmed by family and social pressures. With a good support system and developing coping skills, most young people are able to deal with traumatic or major life events (National Institute of Mental Health, In Harms Way: Suicide in America, p. 3).


The Warning Signs

Most people who are thinking of attempting suicide demonstrate some sort of warning signs to their friends and family beforehand. In fact, approximately 80% of teens who have attempted suicide give warning signs of some kind (National Mental Health Association, 1997, Suicide, Teen Suicide). It is important to note, however, that simply because someone is demonstrating some or any of these signs, does not necessarily mean they are considering suicide.


  • Previous suicide attempt: if someone has attempted suicide in the past they are more likely to think about suicide again in the future (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Suicide threats, direct, or indirect: when a friend says something like “I’m going to kill myself” or “I can’t take it anymore”, it is a sign they are loosing hope with their life and may be thinking about suicide (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Obsession with death: when someone talks, writes, or draws pictures about death a lot, most likely meaning they spend a lot of time thinking about death and may be thinking of attempting suicide (Petros & Shamoo,1989, p.92).

  • Major changes in personality or appearance: if a friend who is normally very neat suddenly becomes very sloppy, or when their mood changes for a long time, this can mean there is something going on which may also cause them to think about suicide (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits: It is normal for people to have some change in how much they eat and sleep, but when the change lasts for a long time, it can be indicative of depression and/or suicidal thoughts (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Change in school and academic performance: If a friend who is generally a good student and s(he)starts to miss class, does not do their homework, and has a negative attitude, this can mean that they are preoccupied with their own thoughts and emotions, and might not care about their life anymore (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Giving away favorite belongings: if a friend tries to give you some of their favorite things, this can sometimes mean they are thinking of attempting suicide and want to make sure the right people will have their things after they are gone.

  • Recent suicide of someone close to them: when someone close commits suicide, it makes it more likely that the friend will attempt suicide (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Self-destructive behavior: when someone uses drugs, drinks alcohol, or speeds while driving, they could be having trouble dealing with what is going on in their life and are resorting to more self-destructive coping practices. (Lyness, 2002).

  • Suddenly feeling happy after being depressed for a long time: if a friend has been sad for a long time and is suddenly happy again, this can mean they have made the decision to attempt suicide and are happy to have found a solution to their problems (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

  • Withdrawal from family and friends: when someone doesn’t talk with their family and friends or do things with them as much as they used to, this can mean they are guilty or angry about something and don’t want to burden their family and friends with their problems (Petros & Shamoo, 1989, p. 92).

Remember, just because someone has some of the warning signs of suicide, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are going to attempt suicide.

Many people do not want to talk to someone who they think may be considering suicide because they feel it will give them the idea that suicide is an option (Shannon, 2004, p. 59). Often though, asking may be enough to prevent someone from actually attempting suicide because they will know there is someone who cares about them and who is willing to help them as they try to solve their problems. If a friend mentions they are thinking of suicide though, it is important to tell an adult about it even if they ask you to keep it a secret. It is critical for the friend to get the help they need, even if you are worried they will be angry if you talk to an adult.



Talking About It


Many young people feel like they cannot talk to their parents or are embarrassed to talk to counselors or doctors. The first place teens tend to turn to is their friends. Although the results differ greatly between studies, “According to one survey, 93% of students reported that they would turn to a friend before a teacher, parent or spiritual guide in a time of crisis” (Peters, 1985, p. 3).

Unfortunately many teens choose not to confide in anyone. It may be more difficult for some teens that grow up in unstable or non-nurturing families to develop coping skills because of a lack of support from their home. Sometimes teens try to cope with these events in unhealthy ways such as alcohol or drug use. This is a dangerous and ineffective way to deal with problems because alcohol and many drugs are depressants, which can actually increase suicidal tendencies (Sarafolean, The Risk of Suicide).

The Risk of Suicide

Talking about problems with a qualified therapist might help some cope with their problems. It will also probably make them a mentally healthier person in the long run. Remember, talking about a traumatic event or depression won’t make the situation worse.

If seeing a psychologist is too intimidating, group therapy can also help some teens deal with their problems. Additionally, group therapy often helps people build self-esteem and can help them realize that they may not be alone in their situation (O’Connor, 2001, p. 2).

One simple step teens can try is to simply get their minds off their issues. They could go to the mall with friends, or go to a concert, or even suggest a fun event for the family to get involved in.


In the Aftermath of Suicide


For the survivors of a suicide death, the “why” questions are unavoidable and people search to find answers that can bring them comfort (Parrish & Trunkle, 2005, 91). Sometimes though, answers can never be found. The important thing is to understand the nature of suicide.

The emotions felt by family members and friends can be very intense. At first it’s common to feel shock and denial - like it never happened. Anger is another emotion often experienced. It can be complex because it can be directed both toward the deceased and others who might have made life worse for the person – parents, a teacher, or a boyfriend (Parrish & Trunkle, 2005, 95). Or perhaps they could have prevented the death. Wanting to place blame on someone for what happened, or trying to figure out how it could’ve been prevented are other common reactions (Parrish & Trunkle, 2005, 97). Sometimes there is also guilt over the fact that the suicide was not prevented (Parrish & Trunkle, 2005, 95).

It’s important to say goodbye and attending the funeral or memorial service is a good way to do it (Parrish & Trunkle, 2005, 94). It helps in moving on; towards the acceptance of all that’s occurred.

A Few More Words on Grief

The depth of bereavement is associated with the closeness of relationships people have with each other. Grief feels different for each person involved –like parents, siblings, or friends - because of the unique quality of each relationship (Compassionate Friends).

Compassionate Friends

Feelings of depression are a normal part of the grieving process. Symptoms include difficulty concentrating and remembering things, tiredness or restless, not wanting to participate in normal activities, feelings of guilt, sleep disturbances, and mood swings. However, it’s possible that friends or siblings can develop major depression as a complication of bereavement (Brent, Perper, Moritz, Liotus, Schweers, Roth, Balach, Allman, 1993, 255). This occurrence is associated with such factors as: closeness of relationship; visual exposure to the deceased at the scene; a conversation with the deceased on the day of the suicide; and a family history of depression (Brent, Perper, Moritz, Allman, Liotus, Schweers, Roth, Balach, & Cannobio, 1993, 1194). If symptoms become severe, long in duration, and functional impairment is evident, screening and therapeutic intervention is recommended (Brent, et al., 1993, 1189).

Masking pain with drugs or alcohol is a big mistake. These substances act on the nervous system in such a way so that the sadness becomes worse. There may also be a huge sense of loneliness - like the biggest void ever. But, trying to feel close to someone by engaging in sexual activity is not a good basis for a healthy relationship.

One of the best things to do is to connect with friends; for example you could go out for food, or to the movies, or sports events. Expressing feelings by doing art or playing music is cool too. Also, not being afraid to talk about the person who died is a great way to make it through such a difficult time - sharing memories and reflecting on how amazing a person he or she was.

At School

When a suicide occurs in a public place – such as Columbine High School in 1999 – witnesses have seen an act of violence, and can experience anxiety, depression and post- traumatic stress syndrome (Brent, Perper, Moritz, Friend, Schweers, Allman, McQuiston, Boylan, Roth, & Balach, 1993, 1187). Variables like proximity to the incident, the closeness of relationship, prior mental health and stressors in life can determine the effects of such an event (Brent, et al., 1993, 1187).

The news of the suicide of a classmate can have a ripple effect in a school. Suicide clusters can occur, but account for only 1-5% of all suicide deaths in adolescents and young adults (Centers for Disease Control, 2005). Contagion can result from the reporting of suicide in the mass media, including newspapers, television news reports and fictional dramatizations (Gould, Shaffner, & Greenberg, 2003, 22).


Suicide in the Media


“I think the cultural view of suicide is an easy way to get out of a problem. It is so widely publicized and promoted through media instead of seeking help and working for a better tomorrow.” – Lindsay 20

Part of movie watching is doing something called suspending reality. This means that in order to completely understand the movie a person has to act as if they are in the movie. Therefore, by the end of the movie he or she is relating with the characters as if they were their friends in their everyday life.

Because of this, after watching a whole movie a person pictures himself or herself in the character’s situation. Perhaps they are wondering if what they would do in that situation, and sometimes coming conclusion as the main character.

However it is important to remember that this was just a movie. The actor in this movie got up after shooting the scene and made a lot of money. If the same course of action was taken they would not get up and not make a lot of money. Although it is normal for the movie to have affected a person’s thoughts, it is important to remember that it was just a story (Fekete, 2001, p. 172).

Music, Television, and Literature

What is true about suicide in movies, also applies to music, television, and literature. A lot of people read or listen, or see things that revolve around suicide, and their sensitivity to the topic decreases. With that lowered sensitivity some people begin to think about suicide as not such a big deal (Stack, 1998, p. 393). However suicide really is a bid deal: it ends a life. Remember to always talk to an adult about thoughts of suicide.

This is especially true with music. Teens listen to a lot of music; it is part of their everyday lives (Rustad, 2003, p. 120). Most teens have the radio or a CD on at all times, and that music can have some suicide-influenced lyrics. This is because artists tend to write about their lives, and a tragic event to them will most likely find its way into the music. As with movies it is important to remember that it is just a song.