Understanding Risk Factors for Suicide
Updated: Feb 7
Kate Spade. Chester Bennington. Anthony Bourdain. These are people who, from the outside, appeared to have everything: success, money, acclaim. While they did have those things, they also had in common deep suffering which ultimately led to them taking their own lives. Because their suicides caused society to experience currents of shock and disbelief, it tells me that we’re missing something and perhaps an open, informative dialogue about suicide is necessary. My goal for this blog post is to shed some light on what really makes people at risk of dying by suicide so that hopefully we can understand and intervene more effectively. If this is a sensitive or triggering topic for you, please take good care of yourself should you choose to continue reading
We’ve long known that some of the biggest warning signs of suicide include feeling like a burden, hopelessness, making suicidal statements or threats, and having access to weapons or other means to self-harm. While these are certainly risk factors for suicide, the latest research says we have been missing a couple big pieces of the puzzle: thwarted belonging and fearlessness.
Many people have times in their life in which they feel like a burden. Perhaps you lost a job and are no longer able to contribute financially to your household in the same way you once did or maybe you feel like you’re making someone else’s life harder simply by existing. Similarly, I think many people have had times in which their sense of belonging becomes strained. Perhaps you have been rejected by a friend or gone through divorce or the loss of a significant relationship. While these are all common experiences that can cause us to feel low, there is another factor that has to be present in order for suicide to become an option in someone’s mind and that is fearlessness.
Humans all have a need for self-preservation and in most cases this overwhelming, innate need to survive inhibits our ability to consider and/or go through with ending our own lives. People who are fearless about pain, injury or death, however, are at a much higher risk for suicide. Often times this includes people who have undergone previous self-injury, numerous physical fights, and occupations like physician and front-line soldiers in which exposure to injury and death are common (Joiner, 2009). In summary, people who are likely among the highest risk for suicide are those who feel like a burden, like they don’t belong, and are fearless about pain and or death.
Other risk factors can include previous suicide attempts, family history of suicide, depression, substance abuse and prolonged stress. Other warning signs that someone may be at risk of suicide are talking about feeling hopeless, wanting to die, intolerable pain, or having no reason to live. Additionally, increased use of substances, isolating and withdrawing can be potential warning signs of an increased risk of suicide.
So, what can you do? If you recognize in yourself or someone else these factors in combination with some of the risks or warning signs, it’s really important to take them seriously. The first step is usually to eliminate means that could be used for self-inflicted harm or death. This means having a friend store guns, prescription medications, or other weapons that could be used to attempt suicide. Suicide is often an impulsive act, and if you can make it even slightly harder to obtain these means, it could save someone's life.
Secondly, letting go of the shame that often accompanies these feelings is critical. You can help someone do this by letting them know they are not alone and there are people who care and want to listen. If professional help from a therapist is an option, it should be strongly considered.
Kate Spade, Chester Bennington and Anthony Bourdain may have had the “perfect” lives from the outside, however it is likely they all experienced some level of perceived burdensomeness, thwarted belonging and fearlessness. Suicide does not discriminate and it doesn’t have to make “logical sense” to us. It is real, permanent, and avoidable.
**National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 OR text HOME to 741741
**Find a professional therapist in your area on Psychologytoday.com
Joiner, T.E. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.