Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and affects people of all ages, races and backgrounds. Given that suicide has surged to the highest levels in nearly 30 years, finding someone affected by it is, unfortunately, not difficult.
In this interview, UFC fighter Cat Zingano discusses her husband’s suicide three years ago and how it has affected her and her son. Assisted by Clayton Chau, M.D., Ph.D., the regional executive medical director for mental health and wellness for St. Joseph Hoag Health, Zingano talked about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, coping with the difficult and distinct grief of this tragedy, and the importance of recognizing warning signs.
During the interview, Zingano asked Dr. Chau about the scope of the problem and resources available to help people affected by severe depression. Dr. Chau wanted to provide more detailed answers in hopes of helping others. Read on to find out what he has to say.
How common is suicide?
Each year, almost 45,000 Americans die by suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
- For every suicide there are 25 attempts.
- Suicide costs the U.S. $44 billion annually.
- On average, 121 people die by suicide each day, one person every 12 minutes.
- Firearms account for almost 50 percent of all suicides.
- White males accounted for 7 out of 10 suicides in 2015.
- While males are four times more likely than females to die by suicide, but females attempt suicide three times as often as males.
- While still low, there is an alarming increase in suicides among girls aged 10 to 14; the suicide rate for these girls has tripled in the last decade.
- Many suicide attempts go unreported or untreated. Surveys suggest that at least 1 million people in the U.S. engage in intentionally inflicted self-harm each year.
What are the most common risk factors in those contemplating suicide?
Suicide does not discriminate by age, race, gender, culture, how much money you make or how you were raised. It affects all people, including those in high-profile industries such as entertainment. This is why it’s important to focus on what a person says or does and keep an eye out for any risk factors or warning signs. Some of the most common signs are:
- Current major depression, especially bipolar depression
- Personality disorder
- Delirium, dementia, psychosis
- Social isolation, real or perceived
- Substance use, especially in early sobriety phase
- Prior suicide attempt
- Complaints of pain/discomfort, current stress
- Multiple losses related to medical illnesses, especially recent losses
- Intimate involvement with and dependence on someone who died recently
- Unsettled sexual identity, especially LGBT youths rejected by families
- Talking about feeling suicidal or wanting to die
- Feeling hopeless, that nothing will ever change or get better
- Feeling helpless, that nothing one does makes any difference
- Feeling like a burden to family and friends
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Reckless behavior, putting oneself in harm’s way or in situations where there is a danger of being killed
- Putting affairs in order (for example, organizing finances or giving away possessions to prepare for one’s death)
- Writing a suicide note
What are some of the myths associated with suicide?
There’s still a lot of stigma and misunderstanding associated with suicide and, despite outreach and education, myths persist:
Myth: Suicide is caused by an overreaction to life events, or an act of revenge.
Reality: Suicide is never simply the result of one single cause, like ending a relationship or losing a job. It is caused by many complex factors. Most people who kill themselves do so because of their own personal suffering, not to cause harm to others. Remember, suicide is not “simple.”
Myth: Suicides happen without warning.
Reality: Most people who attempt or die by suicide have communicated their distress or plans to at least one person. These communications are not always direct, so it’s important to know some of the key warning signs of suicide. When looking back, there are often many missed warning signs.
Myth: Talking about suicide will plant the idea in someone’s mind and make him or her more likely to commit suicide.
Reality: Talking about suicide is often the only way to prevent it. It provides an opportunity to express painful thoughts and feelings that a person may have been keeping to themselves. Discussion brings these feelings into the open and creates an opportunity for intervention and connection to professional help. Only then can someone begin to heal.
Myth: Suicide can’t be prevented. When people make up their minds to kill themselves, there’s nothing you can do.
Reality: Most people thinking about suicide want help to stay alive, and find ways (often indirect) to invite help from others. Everyone can learn how to help someone who may be thinking about suicide.
What should you do if you think someone might be suicidal?
The most important thing you can do is listen to the person and ask questions.
Key questions to ask include:
- Are you thinking of hurting yourself (committing suicide)?
- How long have you been thinking about suicide (frequency, intensity, duration)?
- Do you have a plan? Get specific information if there is a plan.
- Do you have the means to carry out the plan (access to weapons, pills, drugs, etc.)?
- Have you attempted suicide before? Has anyone in your family committed suicide?
- Is there anything or anyone to stop you (religious beliefs, children left behind, pets, etc.)?
If you think the person needs further assistance, next steps can include:
- Providing the person with emergency/crisis numbers
- Exploring available resources (family support, friends, etc.)
- Developing a plan to deal with potential weapons, medications, drugs, etc.
- Increasing the frequency of counseling sessions, possible phone check-ins
- Assessing the need for the person to be seen by a medical professional for medication
- Getting the person hospitalized, if necessary
What resources are available for people who are suffering from depression that may lead to suicide?
There are a number of resources across the country that people can leverage. The biggest areas that will help in reducing depression and suicide at a national level include:
- Mental Health First Aid, a national program that teaches people how to respond to the signs of mental illness.
- Promoting mental resilience through optimism and connectedness
- Education about suicide, including risk factors, warning signs and the availability of help
- Increasing the proficiency of health and welfare services in responding to people in need. This includes better training for health professionals and employing crisis-counseling organizations
- Reducing domestic violence, substance abuse and divorce are long-term strategies to reduce many mental health problems
- Reducing access to convenient means of suicide, such as toxic substances and handguns
- Reducing the doses in packages of medicines, such as aspirin and opioids
- Interventions targeted at high-risk groups
- Increasing community supports for at-risk families
What is the most critical contact information to have available in a case of depression or for someone contemplating suicide?
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255 or text to 838255
- Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center: 877-727-4747
- The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ youths: 866-488-7386 or tweet to @TrevorProject