According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 800 000 people die by suicide each year, which represents one death every 40 seconds. Globally, men are at a greater risk of death by suicide than women, who have higher rates of attempted suicide.

In the past, elderly males were the group at greatest risk of death by suicide. Rates among young people are increasing to such an extent, however, that they are now the group at highest risk in a third of both developed and developing countries. This is especially worrying when one considers that the number of elderly people committing suicide is increasing as the number of young people is decreasing, and is indicative of one of the most pressing social problems in current times.

Individual Suicide Risk Factors

There are certain variables which increase the likelihood that a person will take their own life. Some of these include being a young male, having a history of mental illness or attempted suicide and self-harm, having a drug or alcohol dependency, being a prisoner or ex-prisoner, being in a certain occupation (medical practitioner, dentist, or farmer, for example), having suffered a recent bereavement or major life event, having a lack of social support, being under a significant level of stress, having a physical illness or terminal condition, having a history of sexual abuse, being unemployed and having an absence of meaningful life-goals. Depression is another major risk factor for suicide.

Suicide Prevention at a Community and National Level

Due to concerns about increasing suicide rates and the devastating impact of suicide on those affected both directly and indirectly, many countries are turning their attention to the development of preventative strategies, at community and national levels, with a view to capping the rise and decreasing the figures in the long-term. These measures include reducing access to the means of suicide, treating people with mental health problems, following up with those who have a history of suicide attempts, the responsible reporting of suicide in the media, and suicide awareness training for primary health care workers.

Signs of Suicidal Intent

Did you know that only about 5% of suicides happen without people giving a warning of their intentions? As such, it is a myth that those people who threaten suicide are the least likely to go through with it and all threats to self-harm should be taken seriously. Most suicide attempts reflect an uncertainty about wanting to die in that they are a desperate “cry for help” or the attempter feels ambivalent about dying. This means that a window of opportunity often exists in which it is possible to influence the outcome of events.

When a person is feeling suicidal, unable to relate to others around them, they often withdraw into themselves. They may talk about feeling isolated and lonely. Often, they will talk about how to commit suicide or tidying up their affairs, giving various indications of their plans. The expression of feelings of failure, uselessness or hopelessness and low self-esteem is very common, as is the tendency to dwell on problems for which there seem to be no solutions.

How to Help a Person Who is Feeling Suicidal

The easiest way to find out if people are suicidal is to ask them. The biggest mistake that can be made is not to ask out of a misplaced fear that this will somehow put the idea into their heads. On the contrary, if people are intent on killing themselves, talking to someone may be the only means of preventing them from going through with it. People that are in despair of this kind are often very honest and find it a relief to speak of it openly.

Once people admit to having suicidal thoughts, it is helpful to ask them to elaborate. Are these thoughts frequent? Have they thought specifically of how they would go about it? Have they a time frame in mind? The more detailed their description, the greater the severity and the urgency of their problem.

The priority is linking those who are actively suicidal in with the necessary support. Are they willing to seek the help that they need? They might agree to make an emergency appointment to see their doctor, who will refer them on to a crisis support team and community mental health facility or they might go to the emergency room of a local hospital.

When suicidal people are hostile, stubborn, or unwilling to get help, it may be necessary to call the police for assistance so that they may be committed involuntarily for an evaluation at a local mental health facility. Although an extremely difficult process to go through, which will no doubt make them very angry, it could save their lives. It is likely that the intensity of the experience will bring to the surface many of the feelings that they have been bottling up, enabling them to be expressed, explored and dealt with in a secure and safe environment.

The Effects of Suicide

Unsurprisingly, suicide evokes strong feelings and mixed feelings in the family members and friends of the suicidal individual. While those who have chosen death by suicide, for example, may feel that they are relieving others of a burden, those that are left behind often feel that they have chosen to hurt them in this way as a form of punishment. Others are plagued by guilt for the rest of their lives. For some, the religious implications of suicide can also be devastating.

As well as tackling the alarming rise in suicide by addressing societal factors, people can do a great deal to help those individuals within their own lives who may experience suicidal feelings. Acknowledging their pain, rather than dismissing it by ignoring or minimizing their depressive symptoms, telling them to “pull themselves together” or “snap out of it” or getting angry at their apparent “weakness” is key to encouraging them to get the care that they need and avoid becoming another statistic.

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