What is the Suicide Behaviours Questionnaire-Revised?

Introduction

The Suicide Behaviors Questionnaire-Revised (SBQ-R) is a psychological self-report questionnaire designed to identify risk factors for suicide in children and adolescents between ages 13 and 18.

Background

The four-question test is filled out by the child and takes approximately five minutes to complete. The questionnaire has been found to be reliable and valid in recent studies. One study demonstrated that the SBQ-R had high internal consistency with a sample of university students. However, another body of research, which evaluated some of the most commonly used tools for assessing suicidal thoughts and behaviours in college-aged students, found that the SBQ-R and suicide assessment tools in general have very little overlap between them. One of the greatest strengths of the SBQ-R is that, unlike some other tools commonly used for suicidality assessment, it asks about future anticipation of suicidal thoughts or behaviours as well as past and present ones and includes a question about lifetime suicidal ideation, plans to commit suicide, and actual attempts.

Question Breakdown, Scoring, and Interpretation

Each of the four questions addresses a specific risk factor: the first concerns presence of suicidal thoughts and attempts, the second concerns frequency of suicidal thoughts, the third concerns the threat level of suicidal attempts, and the fourth concerns likelihood of future suicidal attempts. The first item has often been used on its own in order to assign individuals to a suicidal and a non-suicidal control group for studies. Each question has an individual scale, and each response corresponds to a certain point value.

Domain Breakdown

A maximum score of 18 is possible on the SBQ-R, and the following responses to the 4 questions correspond to the following point values:

Point ValueQuestion 1 ResponseQuestion 2 ResponseQuestion 3 ResponseQuestion 4 Response
0Never
11Never1No chance at all
22, 3a, or 3bRarely2a or 2bRather unlikely
3Sometimes3a or 3bUnlikely
44a or 4bOftenLikely
5Very oftenRather likely
6Very likely

Interpretation of Subscale Scores

A total score of 7 and higher in the general population and a total score of 8 and higher in patients with psychiatric disorders indicates significant risk of suicidal behaviour.

What is a Suicide Prevention Contract?

Introduction

A suicide prevention contract is a contract that contains an agreement not to attempt/commit suicide.

Refer to Suicidal Ideation, Suicide Awareness, Suicide Prevention, and Assessment of Suicide Risk.

Background

It was historically used by health professionals dealing with depressive clients. Typically, the client was asked to agree to talk with the professional prior to carrying out any decision to commit suicide. Suicide prevention contracts have been shown not to be effective and have risk of harm. Suicide prevention contracts were once a “widely used but overvalued clinical and risk-management technique.” Indeed, it has been argued that such contracts “may in fact increase danger by providing psychiatrists with a false sense of security, thus decreasing their clinical vigilance.” It has also been argued that such contracts can anger or inhibit the client and introduce coercion into therapy.

What is Living Is For Everyone?

Introduction

Living Is For Everyone (LIFE) is a suicide prevention initiative of the Australian Government’s National Suicide Prevention Strategy (NSPS).

Background

The National Suicide Prevention Strategy funds a number of programmes, some jointly funded with the National Mental Health Strategy.

The programmes, which operate in a range of settings, use population-based approaches with an emphasis on community capacity building.

The LIFE initiative has two main components:

  1. The LIFE resources; and
  2. The LIFE website.

The LIFE resources were redeveloped from a 2000 document and published in 2008. They are designed for people working with those at risk of suicide, with the broad intention of reducing the rate at which people take their own lives in Australia.

The LIFE resources have three components:

  1. The LIFE Framework: The Australian reference for suicide prevention activities;
  2. LIFE Research and Evidence: A review of statistics, trends, comparisons and issues in suicide and self-harm prevention; and
  3. LIFE fact sheets: A set of 24 fact sheets that provide summaries and advice about suicide prevention.

You can find the official website here.

What is Suicidal Ideation?

Introduction

Suicidal ideation (or suicidal thoughts) means having thoughts, ideas, or ruminations about the possibility of ending one’s life.

Refer to Coping (Psychology), Suicide Prevention, and Suicide Awareness.

It is not a diagnosis, but is a symptom of some mental disorders and can also occur in response to adverse events without the presence of a mental disorder.

On suicide risk scales, the range of suicidal ideation varies from fleeting thoughts to detailed planning. Passive suicidal ideation is thinking about not wanting to live or imagining being dead. Active suicidal ideation is thinking about different ways to die or forming a plan to die.

Most people who have suicidal thoughts do not go on to make suicide attempts, but suicidal thoughts are considered a risk factor. During 2008-2009, an estimated 8.3 million adults aged 18 and over in the United States, or 3.7% of the adult US population, reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous year. An estimated 2.2 million in the US reported having made suicide plans in 2014. Suicidal thoughts are also common among teenagers.

Suicidal ideation is generally associated with depression and other mood disorders; however, it seems to have associations with many other mental disorders, life events, and family events, all of which may increase the risk of suicidal ideation. Mental health researchers indicate that healthcare systems should provide treatment for individuals with suicidal ideation, regardless of diagnosis, because of the risk for suicidal acts and repeated problems associated with suicidal thoughts. There are a number of treatment options for people who experience suicidal ideation.

Definitions

The ICD-11 describes suicidal ideation as “thoughts, ideas, or ruminations about the possibility of ending one’s life, ranging from thinking that one would be better off dead to formulation of elaborate plans”.

The DSM-5 defines it as “thoughts about self-harm, with deliberate consideration or planning of possible techniques of causing one’s own death”.

The CDC defines suicidal ideation “as thinking about, considering, or planning suicide”.

Terminology

Another term for suicidal ideation is suicidal thoughts.

When someone who has not shown a history of suicidal ideation experiences a sudden and pronounced thought of performing an act which would necessarily lead to their own death, psychologists call this an intrusive thought. A commonly experienced example of this is the high place phenomenon, also referred to as the call of the void. The urge to jump is called “mountain fever” in Brian Biggs’ book Dear Julia.

Euphemisms related to mortal contemplation include internal struggle, voluntary death, and eating one’s gun.

Risk Factors

The risk factors for suicidal ideation can be divided into three categories:

  1. Psychiatric disorders;
  2. Life events; and
  3. Family history.

Psychiatric Disorders

Suicidal ideation is a symptom for many mental disorders and can occur in response to adverse life events without the presence of a mental disorder.

There are several psychiatric disorders that appear to be comorbid with suicidal ideation or considerably increase the risk of suicidal ideation. For example, many individuals with borderline personality disorder exhibit recurrent suicidal behaviour and suicidal thoughts. One study found that 73% of patients with borderline personality disorder have attempted suicide, with the average patient having 3.4 attempts. The following list includes the disorders that have been shown to be the strongest predictors of suicidal ideation. These are not the only disorders that can increase risk of suicidal ideation. The disorders in which risk is increased the greatest include:

Medication Side Effects

Antidepressant medications are commonly used to decrease the symptoms in patients with moderate to severe clinical depression, and some studies indicate a connection between suicidal thoughts and tendencies and taking antidepressants, increasing the risk of suicidal thoughts in some patients.

Some medications, such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), can have suicidal ideation as a side effect. Moreover, these drugs’ intended effects, can themselves have unintended consequence of an increased individual risk and collective rate of suicidal behaviour: Among the set of persons taking the medication, a subset feel bad enough to want to attempt suicide (or to desire the perceived results of suicide) but are inhibited by depression-induced symptoms, such as lack of energy and motivation, from following through with an attempt. Among this subset, a “sub-subset” may find that the medication alleviates their physiological symptoms (such as lack of energy) and secondary psychological symptoms (e.g. lack of motivation) before or at lower doses than it alleviates their primary psychological symptom of depressed mood. Among this group of persons, the desire for suicide or its effects persists even as major obstacles to suicidal action are removed, with the effect that the incidences of suicide attempt and of completed suicide increase.

In 2003, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued the agency’s strictest warning for manufacturers of all antidepressants (including tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) due to their association with suicidal thoughts and behaviours. Further studies disagree with the warning, especially when prescribed for adults, claiming more recent studies are inconclusive in the connection between the drugs and suicidal ideation.

Individuals with anxiety disorders who self-medicate with drugs or alcohol may also have an increased likelihood of suicidal ideation.

Life Events

Life events are strong predictors of increased risk for suicidal ideation. Furthermore, life events can also lead to or be comorbid with the previous listed psychiatric disorders and predict suicidal ideation through those means. Life events that adults and children face can be dissimilar and for this reason, the list of events that increase risk can vary in adults and children. The life events that have been shown to increase risk most significantly are:

  • Alcohol use disorder.
    • Studies have shown that individuals who binge drink, rather than drink socially, tend to have higher rates of suicidal ideation.
    • Certain studies associate those who experience suicidal ideation with higher alcohol consumption.
    • Not only do some studies show that solitary binge drinking can increase suicidal ideation, but there is a positive feedback relationship causing those who have more suicidal ideation to have more drinks per day in a solitary environment.
  • Minoritised gender expression and/or sexuality.
  • Unemployment.
  • Chronic illness or pain.
  • Death of family members or friends.
  • End of a relationship or being rejected by a romantic interest.
  • Major change in life standard (e.g. relocation abroad).
  • Other studies have found that tobacco use is correlated with depression and suicidal ideation.
  • Unplanned pregnancy.
  • Bullying, including cyberbullying and workplace bullying.
  • Previous suicide attempts.
    • Having previously attempted suicide is one of the strongest indicators of future suicidal ideation or suicide attempts.
  • Military experience.
  • Community violence.
  • Undesired changes in body weight.
    • Women: increased BMI increases chance of suicidal ideation.
    • Men: severe decrease in BMI increases chance of suicidal ideation.
      • In general, the obese population has increased odds of suicidal ideation in relation to individuals that are of average-weight.
  • Exposure and attention to suicide related images or words.

Family History

  • Parents with a history of depression.
    • Valenstein et al. studied 340 adult offspring whose parents had depression in the past.
    • They found that 7% of the offspring had suicidal ideation in the previous month alone.
  • Abuse.
    • Childhood: physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
    • Adolescence: physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
  • Family violence.
  • Childhood residential instability.
    • Certain studies associate those who experience suicidal ideation with family disruption.

Relationships with Parents and Friends

According to a study conducted by Ruth X. Liu of San Diego State University, a significant connection was found between the parent-child relationships of adolescents in early, middle and late adolescence and their likelihood of suicidal ideation. The study consisted of measuring relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, and fathers and daughters. The relationships between fathers and sons during early and middle adolescence show an inverse relationship to suicidal ideation. Closeness with the father in late adolescence is “significantly related to suicidal ideation”. Liu goes on to explain the relationship found between closeness with the opposite sex parent and the child’s risk of suicidal thoughts. It was found that boys are better protected from suicidal ideation if they are close to their mothers through early and late adolescence; whereas girls are better protected by having a close relationship with their father during middle adolescence.

An article published in 2010 by Zappulla and Pace found that suicidal ideation in adolescent boys is exacerbated by detachment from the parents when depression is already present in the child. Lifetime prevalence estimates of suicidal ideation among nonclinical populations of adolescents generally range from 60% and in many cases its severity increases the risk of completed suicide.

Prevention

Refer to Suicide Prevention.

Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.[citation needed] If signs, symptoms, or risk factors are detected early then the individual might seek treatment and help before attempting to take their own life. In a study of individuals who did commit suicide, 91% of them likely suffered from one or more mental illnesses. However, only 35% of those individuals were treated or being treated for a mental illness. This emphasizes the importance of early detection; if a mental illness is detected, it can be treated and controlled to help prevent suicide attempts. Another study investigated strictly suicidal ideation in adolescents. This study found that depression symptoms in adolescents early as 9th grade is a predictor of suicidal ideation. Most people with long-term suicidal ideation do not seek professional help.

The previously mentioned studies point out the difficulty that mental health professionals have in motivating individuals to seek and continue treatment. Ways to increase the number of individuals who seek treatment may include:

  • Increasing the availability of therapy treatment in early stage.
  • Increasing the public’s knowledge on when psychiatric help may be beneficial to them.
  • Those who have adverse life conditions seem to have just as much risk of suicide as those with mental illness.

A study conducted by researchers in Australia set out to determine a course of early detection for suicidal ideation in teens stating that “risks associated with suicidality require an immediate focus on diminishing self-harming cognitions so as to ensure safety before attending to the underlying etiology of the behavior”. A Psychological Distress scale known as the K10 was administered monthly to a random sample of individuals. According to the results among the 9.9% of individuals who reported “psychological distress (all categories)” 5.1% of the same participants reported suicidal ideation. Participants who scored “very high” on the Psychological Distress scale “were 77 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than those in the low category”.

In a one-year study conducted in Finland, 41% of the patients who later committed suicide saw a health care professional, most seeing a psychiatrist. Of those, only 22% discussed suicidal intent on their last office visit. In most of the cases, the office visit took place within a week of the suicide, and most of the victims had a diagnosed depressive disorder.

There are many centers where one can receive aid in the fight against suicidal ideation and suicide. Hemelrijk et al. (2012) found evidence that assisting people with suicidal ideation via the internet versus more direct forms such as phone conversations has a greater effect. In a 2021 research study, Nguyen et al. (2021) propose that maybe the premise that suicidal ideation is a kind of illness has been an obstacle to dealing with suicidal ideation. They use a Bayesian statistical investigation, in conjunction with the mindsponge theory, to explore the processes where mental disorders have played a very minor role and conclude that there are many cases where the suicidal ideation represents a type of cost-benefit analysis for a life/death consideration, and these people may not be called “patients”.

Assessment

Assessment seeks to understand an individual by integrating information from multiple sources such as clinical interviews; medical exams and physiological measures; standardised psychometric tests and questionnaires; structured diagnostic interviews; review of records; and collateral interviews.

Interviews

Psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals conduct clinical interviews to ascertain the nature of a patient or client’s difficulties, including any signs or symptoms of illness the person might exhibit.

  • Clinical interviews are “unstructured” in the sense that each clinician develops a particular approach to asking questions, without necessarily following a predefined format.
  • Structured (or semi-structured) interviews prescribe the questions, their order of presentation, “probes” (queries) if a patient’s response is not clear or specific enough, and a method to rate the frequency and intensity of symptoms.

Standardised Psychometric Measures

Refer to Assessment of Suicide Risk.

  • Beck Scale for Suicide Ideation.
  • Nurses’ Global Assessment of Suicide Risk.
  • Suicidal Affect-Behaviour-Cognition Scale (SABCS).
  • Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale.

Treatment

Treatment of suicidal ideation can be problematic due to the fact that several medications have actually been linked to increasing or causing suicidal ideation in patients. Therefore, several alternative means of treating suicidal ideation are often used. The main treatments include:

  • Therapy;
  • Hospitalisation;
  • Outpatient treatment; and
  • Medication or other modalities.

Therapy

In psychotherapy a person explores the issues that make them feel suicidal and learns skills to help manage emotions more effectively.

Hospitalisation

Hospitalisation allows the patient to be in a secure, supervised environment to prevent the suicidal ideation from turning into suicide attempts. In most cases, individuals have the freedom to choose which treatment they see fit for themselves. However, there are several circumstances in which individuals can be hospitalised involuntarily. These circumstances are:

  • If an individual poses danger to self or others; and/or
  • If an individual is unable to care for oneself.

Hospitalisation may also be a treatment option if an individual:

  • Has access to lethal means (e.g. a firearm or a stockpile of pills).
  • Does not have social support or people to supervise them.
  • Has a suicide plan.
  • Has symptoms of a psychiatric disorder (e.g. psychosis, mania, etc.).

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment allows individuals to remain at their place of residence and receive treatment when needed or on a scheduled basis. Being at home may improve quality of life for some patients, because they will have access to their personal belongings, and be able to come and go freely. Before allowing patients the freedom that comes with outpatient treatment, physicians evaluate several factors of the patient. These factors include the patient’s level of social support, impulse control and quality of judgment. After the patient passes the evaluation, they are often asked to consent to a “no-harm contract”. This is a contract formulated by the physician and the family of the patient. Within the contract, the patient agrees not to harm themselves, to continue their visits with the physician, and to contact the physician in times of need. There is some debate as to whether “no-harm” contracts are effective. These patients are then checked on routinely to assure they are maintaining their contract and avoiding dangerous activities (drinking alcohol, driving fast, and not wearing a seat belt, etc.).

Medication

Prescribing medication to treat suicidal ideation can be difficult. One reason for this is that many medications lift patients’ energy levels before lifting their mood. This puts them at greater risk of following through with attempting suicide. Additionally, if a person has a comorbid psychiatric disorder, it may be difficult to find a medication that addresses both the psychiatric disorder and suicidal ideation.

Antidepressants may be effective. Often, SSRIs are used instead of TCAs as the latter typically have greater harm in overdose.

Antidepressants have been shown to be a very effective means of treating suicidal ideation. One correlational study compared mortality rates due to suicide to the use of SSRI antidepressants within certain counties. The counties which had higher SSRI use had a significantly lower number of deaths caused by suicide. Additionally, an experimental study followed depressed patients for one year. During the first six months of that year, the patients were examined for suicidal behaviour including suicidal ideation. The patients were then prescribed antidepressants for the six months following the first six observatory months. During the six months of treatment, experimenters found suicide ideation reduced from 47% of patients down to 14% of patients. Thus, it appears from current research that antidepressants have a helpful effect on the reduction of suicidal ideation.

Although research is largely in favour of the use of antidepressants for the treatment of suicidal ideation, in some cases antidepressants are claimed to be the cause of suicidal ideation. Upon the start of using antidepressants, many clinicians will note that sometimes the sudden onset of suicidal ideation may accompany treatment. This has caused the FDA to issue a warning stating that sometimes the use of antidepressants may actually increase the thoughts of suicidal ideation. Medical studies have found antidepressants help treat cases of suicidal ideation and work especially well with psychological therapy. Lithium reduces the risk of suicide in people with mood disorders. Tentative evidence finds clozapine in people with schizophrenia reduces the risk of suicide.

What is Suicide Awareness?

Introduction

Suicide awareness is a proactive effort to raise awareness around suicidal behaviours.

Refer to Coping (Psychology), Suicide Prevention, and Suicidal Ideation.

It is focused on reducing social stigmas and ambiguity, by bringing attention to suicide statistically and sociologically, and encouraging positive dialogue and engagement as a means to prevent suicide. Suicide awareness is linked to suicide prevention as both address suicide education and the dissemination of information to ultimately decrease the rate of suicide. Awareness is a first stage that can ease the need for prevention.

Awareness signifies a fundamental consciousness of the threat, while prevention focuses on stopping the act. Suicide awareness is not a medical engagement, but a combination of medical, social, emotional and financial counselling. Suicide awareness in adolescents focuses on the age group between 10-24 years, beginning with the onset of puberty.

Stigma and Ambiguity

Stigma is a negative impact that society can often attribute to the suicidal condition, and which can hinder and prevent positive engagement with those demonstrating suicidal behaviour. It can be experienced as self-stigma or cultural, public stigma. Self-stigma is the adverse effect of internalised prejudice, manifesting itself in reduced self-esteem, decreased self-efficacy, and a feeling of “why try” or self-deprecation (undervaluing any attempts to get a job, be social, etc. because of lack of self-worth). It is experienced not only by those facing suicidal thoughts, but also by those directly and indirectly affected such as family members and friends. Public stigma is experienced by prejudice and discrimination through public misuse of stereotypes associated with suicide.

Stigma can create a detrimental barrier for some seeking help. Research has consistently illustrated the physical link between suicide and mental illness, but ignorance and outdated beliefs can sometimes lead to these disorders being identified as a weakness or a lack of willpower. Stigma can prevent survivors of suicide attempts, and those affected by suicide deaths, from reaching out for support from professionals and advocates to make positive change.

Historical Stigma

Historically, suicide has not always been considered a societal taboo. It is critical to understand the historical context in order to raise awareness of suicide’s impact on our current culture.

Suicide was embraced as a philosophical escape by the followers of the Greek philosopher Epicurus when life’s happiness seemed lost. It has been glorified in self-immolation as an act of martyrdom as in the case of Thich Quang Duc who burned himself to death in protest of South Vietnam’s religious policy. Assisted suicide as a release from suffering can be traced back to ancient Roman society. In Jewish culture, there is a reverence for the mass suicide at Masada in the face of attack by the Roman empire, showing how suicide has sometimes had a contradictory relationship with established religion. This indicates a tension between the presentation of suicide in this historical context, and its associations in our current society with personal anguish. Today, suicide is generally perceived as an act of despair or hopelessness, or a criminal act of terrorism (suicide attack). This negative backdrop was seen in Colonial America, where suicides were considered criminal and brought to trial, even if mental illness had been present.

Suicide was identified in Roman Catholicism as a sinful act, with religious burial prohibited until 1983, when the Catholic Church altered the canon law to allow funerals and burials within the church of those who died by suicide. Today, many current societies and religious traditions condemn suicide, especially in Western culture. Public consideration of suicide in our culture is further complicated by society’s struggle to rationalize such cult events as the Jonestown mass suicide. In light of these mixed historical messages, it can be confusing for youth, presented with an academic and historical profile for suicide. The ambiguity of accepted suicide and suicidal behaviour definitions impedes progress with its utilisation of variable terminology.

Public and Cultural Stigma

Today, even though suicide is considered a public health issue by advocates, the general public often still consider it a private shame; a final desperate solution for the emotionally weak. It is stigmatised in the public perception by being associated with weakness, a “cry for attention,” shame, and depression, without understanding the contributing factors. There can be a visceral and emotional reaction to suicide rather than an attempt to understand it. This reaction is based on stereotypes (overgeneralisations about a group: weak or crazy), prejudices (agreement with stereotypical beliefs and related emotional reactions: Sue attempted suicide; ‘I’m afraid of her’), and discrimination (unfair behaviour towards the suicidal individual or group: avoidance; ‘suicidal persons should be locked up’). Erving Goffman defined courtesy stigma as the discrimination, prejudice and stereotypes which family and friends experience as suicide survivors. Public stigma is felt by medical professionals whose clients die by suicide and whose treatment is then questioned by colleagues and in lawsuits, often contributing to their being less inclined to work with suicidal patients. Property can also be stigmatized by suicide: property sellers in certain jurisdictions in the United States, in California for example, are required by law to reveal if a suicide or murder occurred on the premises in the past three years, putting suicide in the same category as homicide. These issues compound and perpetuate the public stigma of suicide, exacerbating the inclination for suicidal individuals, and their family and friends, to bury their experiences, creating a barrier to care.

Emotional Stigma

Emotionally, the negative stigma of suicide is a powerful force creating isolation and exclusion for those in suicidal crisis. The use of stereotypes, discrimination and prejudices can strip the dignity of those experiencing suicidal behaviour. It also has the potential to inhibit compassion from others and to diminish hope. Fear of being socially rejected and labelled suicidal can prevent communication and support. Distress and reduced life satisfaction are directly affected by subjective feelings of being devalued and marginalised. This develops into an internalized stigma; it creates self-stigmatised emotions, self-deprecation and self-actualisation of negative stereotypes, causing further withdrawal, reduction in quality of life and the inhibiting access to care.

This emotional stigma also affects suicide survivors: those suffering a loved one’s loss, stirring up guilt, self-blame, isolation, depression and post-traumatic stress. Subjective experiences of feeling shunned or blamed for an incident can cause those close to the victim to bury the truth of what transpired.

Awareness Factors

Suicide awareness expresses the need for open constructive dialogue as an initial step towards preventing incidents of adolescent suicide. Once the stigmas have been overcome, there is an increased possibility that education, medical care and support can provide a critical framework for those at risk. Lack of information, awareness of professional services, judgement and insensitivity from religious groups, and financial strain have all been identified as barriers to support access for those youth in suicidal crisis. The critical framework is a necessary component to implementing suicide awareness and suicide prevention, and breaking down these barriers.

Protective Factors

Protective factors are characteristics or conditions that may have a positive effect on youth and reduce the possibility of suicide attempts. These factors have not been studied in as much depth as risk factors, so there is less research. They include:

  • Receiving effective mental health care.
  • Positive social connections and support with family and peers provides coping skills.
  • Participation in community and social groups (i.e. religious) that foster resilience.
  • Optimism enables youth to engage and acquire adaptive skills in reinterpreting adverse experiences to find meaning and benefit.
  • Life satisfaction, spiritual wellbeing and belief that a person can survive beyond their pain is protective against suicide.
  • Resiliency based on adaptive coping skills has can reduce suicide risk, and research suggests these skills can be taught.
  • Finding hope can be a key protective factor and a catalyst for the recovery process.

It is important to note, however, that in-depth training is paramount for those involved in any service that looks to the awareness and needs of those touched by suicide.

Social Media

Suicide awareness and prevention have in the past only relied on research from clinical observation. In bringing insights, intimate experience, and real-world wisdom of suicide attempt survivors to the table, professionals, educators, other survivors and suicide attempt survivors can learn firsthand from their “lived experience.”

Media and journalism, when reporting on suicide, have moved forward in their discussion of suicide. The Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide discovered the powerful impact media coverage, newspapers and journalists can have on the perpetuating stigma of suicide, and that it can lead to greater risk of occurrence. The specific rules that media representatives should follow are:

  • Don’t sensationalise the suicide.
  • Don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one.
  • Don’t describe the suicide method.
  • Report on suicide as a public health issue.
  • Don’t speculate why the person might have done it.
  • Don’t quote or interview police or first responders about the causes of suicide.
  • Describe suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed themselves,” rather than “committed suicide.”
  • Don’t glamorise suicide.

This is to prevent certain types of messaging around suicide that could increase the chances of at-risk youth considering or attempting suicide. This initiative brought awareness to the sensitivity of reporting on suicide in a constructive, destigmatised method of messaging.

Social Agency

Education in a non-threatening environment is critical to a growth in awareness among adolescents. Health education is closely related to health awareness. School can be the best place to implement a suicide education program because it is the pivotal location that brings together the major influences in an adolescent’s life. Pilot programmes for awareness, and coping and resiliency training should be put into place for all adolescent school-aged children to combat life stressors and to encourage healthy communication.

What is Suicide Prevention?

Introduction

Suicide prevention is a collection of efforts to reduce the risk of suicide. These efforts may occur at the individual, relationship, community, and society level. Suicide is often preventable.

Refer to Coping (Psychology), Suicide Awareness, and Suicide Ideation.

Beyond direct interventions to stop an impending suicide, methods may include:

  • Treating mental illness.
  • Improving coping strategies of people who are at risk.
  • Reducing risk factors for suicide, such as poverty and social vulnerability.
  • Giving people hope for a better life after current problems are resolved.
  • Call a suicide hotline number.

General efforts include measures within the realms of medicine, mental health, and public health. Because protective factors such as social support and social engagement – as well as environmental risk factors such as access to lethal means – play a role in suicide, suicide is not solely a medical or mental-health issue.

Suicide prevention measures suggested by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Interventions

Lethal Mean Reduction

Means reduction ⁠- ⁠reducing the odds that a suicide attempter will use highly lethal means -— ⁠is an important component of suicide prevention. This practice is also called “means restriction”.

It has been demonstrated that restricting lethal means can help reduce suicide rates, as delaying action until the desire to die has passed. In general, strong evidence supports the effectiveness of means restriction in preventing suicides. There is also strong evidence that restricted access at so-called suicide hotspots, such as bridges and cliffs, reduces suicides, whereas other interventions such as placing signs or increasing surveillance at these sites appears less effective. One of the most famous historical examples of means reduction is that of coal gas in the United Kingdom. Until the 1950s, the most common means of suicide in the UK was poisoning by gas inhalation. In 1958, natural gas (virtually free of carbon monoxide) was introduced, and over the next decade, comprised over 50% of gas used. As carbon monoxide in gas decreased, suicides also decreased. The decrease was driven entirely by dramatic decreases in the number of suicides by carbon monoxide poisoning. A 2020 Cochrane review on means restrictions for jumping found tentative evidence of reductions in frequency.

In the United States, firearm access is associated with increased suicide completion. About 85% of attempts with a gun result in death while most other widely used suicide attempt methods result in death less than 5% of the time. Although restrictions on access to firearms have reduced firearm suicide rates in other countries, such restrictions are difficult in the United States because the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution limits restrictions on weapons.

Crises Hotline

Crisis hotlines connect a person in distress to either a volunteer or staff member. This may occur via telephone, text messaging, online chat, or in person. Even though crisis hotlines are common, they have not been well studied. One study found a decrease in psychological pain, hopelessness, and desire to die from the beginning of the call through the next few weeks; however, the desire to die did not decrease long term.

Social Intervention

In the United States, the 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention promotes various specific suicide prevention efforts including:

  • Developing groups led by professionally trained individuals for broad-based support for suicide prevention.
  • Promoting community-based suicide prevention programmes.
  • Screening and reducing at-risk behaviour through psychological resilience programs that promotes optimism and connectedness.
  • Education about suicide, including risk factors, warning signs, stigma related issues and the availability of help through social campaigns.
  • Increasing the proficiency of health and welfare services at responding to people in need. e.g. sponsored training for helping professionals, increased access to community linkages, employing crisis counselling organisations.
  • Reducing domestic violence and substance abuse through legal and empowerment means are long-term strategies.
  • Reducing access to convenient means of suicide and methods of self-harm. e.g. toxic substances, poisons, handguns.
  • Reducing the quantity of dosages supplied in packages of non-prescription medicines e.g. aspirin.
  • School-based competency promoting and skill enhancing programmes.
  • Interventions and usage of ethical surveillance systems targeted at high-risk groups.
  • Improving reporting and portrayals of negative behaviour, suicidal behaviour, mental illness and substance abuse in the entertainment and news media.
  • Research on protective factors & development of effective clinical and professional practices.

Media Guidelines

Recommendations around media reporting of suicide include not sensationalizing the event or attributing it to a single cause. It is also recommended that media messages include suicide prevention messages such as stories of hope and links to further resources. Particular care is recommended when the person who died is famous. Specific details of the method or the location are not recommended.

There; however, is little evidence regarding the benefit of providing resources for those looking for help and the evidence for media guidelines generally is mixed at best.

TV shows and news media may also be able to help prevent suicide by linking suicide with negative outcomes such as pain for the person who has attempted suicide and their survivors, conveying that the majority of people choose something other than suicide in order to solve their problems, avoiding mentioning suicide epidemics, and avoiding presenting authorities or sympathetic, ordinary people as spokespersons for the reasonableness of suicide.

Medication

The medication lithium may be useful in certain situations to reduce the risk of suicide. Specifically it is effective at lowering the risk of suicide in those with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. Some antidepressant medications may increase suicidal ideation in some patients under certain conditions.

Counselling

There are multiple talk therapies that reduce suicidal thoughts and behaviours including dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT). Cognitive behaviour therapy for suicide prevention (CBT-SP) is a form of DBT adapted for adolescents at high risk for repeated suicide attempts. The brief intervention and contact technique developed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) also has shown benefit.

The WHO recommends “specific skills should be available in the education system to prevent bullying and violence in and around the school”.

Coping Planning

Coping planning is an strengths-based intervention that aims to meet the needs of people who ask for help, including those experiencing suicidal ideation. By addressing why someone asks for help, the risk assessment and management stays on what the person needs, and the needs assessment focuses on the individual needs of each person. The coping planning approach to suicide prevention draws on the health-focused theory of coping. Coping is normalised as a normal and universal human response to unpleasant emotions and interventions are considered a change continuum of low intensity (e.g. self-soothing) to high intensity support (e.g. professional help). By planning for coping, it supports people who are distressed and provides a sense of belongingness and resilience in treatment of illness. The proactive coping planning approach overcomes implications of ironic process theory. The biopsychosocial strategy of training people in healthy coping improves emotional regulation and decreases memories of unpleasant emotions. A good coping planning strategically reduces the inattentional blindness for a person while developing resilience and regulation strengths.

Strategies

The traditional approach has been to identify the risk factors that increase suicide or self-harm, though meta-analysis studies suggest that suicide risk assessment might not be useful and recommend immediate hospitalization of the person with suicidal feelings as the healthy choice. In 2001, the US Department of Health and Human Services, published the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, establishing a framework for suicide prevention in the US The document, and its 2012 revision, calls for a public health approach to suicide prevention, focusing on identifying patterns of suicide and suicidal ideation throughout a group or population (as opposed to exploring the history and health conditions that could lead to suicide in a single individual). The ability to recognise warning signs of suicide allows individuals who may be concerned about someone they know to direct them to help.

Suicide gesture and suicidal desire (a vague wish for death without any actual intent to kill oneself) are potentially self-injurious behaviours that a person may use to attain some other ends, like to seek help, punish others, or to receive attention. This behaviour has the potential to aid an individual’s capability for suicide and can be considered as a suicide warning, when the person shows intent through verbal and behavioural signs.

A United States Army suicide prevention poster.

Specific Strategies

Suicide prevention strategies focus on reducing the risk factors and intervening strategically to reduce the level of risk. Risk and protective factors, unique to the individual can be assessed by a qualified mental health professional.

Some of the specific strategies used to address are:

  • Crisis intervention.
  • Structured counselling and psychotherapy.
  • Hospitalisation for those with low adherence to collaboration for help and those who require monitoring and secondary symptom treatment.
  • Supportive therapy like substance abuse treatment, psychotropic medication, Family psychoeducation and Access to emergency phone call care with emergency rooms, suicide prevention hotlines, etc.
  • Restricting access to lethality of suicide means through policies and laws.
  • Creating and using crisis cards, an easy-to-read uncluttered card that describes a list of activities one should follow in crisis until the positive behaviour responses settles in the personality.
  • Person-centred life skills training. e.g. problem solving.
  • Registering with support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Suicide Bereavement Support Group, a religious group with flow rituals, etc.
  • Therapeutic recreational therapy that improves mood.
  • Motivating self-care activities like physical exercise’s and meditative relaxation.

Psychotherapies that have shown most successful or evidence based are dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which has shown to be helpful in reducing suicide attempts and reducing hospitalisations for suicidal ideation and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which has shown to improve problem-solving and coping abilities.

After a Suicide

Postvention is for people affected by an individual’s suicide. This intervention facilitates grieving, guides to reduce guilt, anxiety, and depression and to decrease the effects of trauma. Bereavement is ruled out and promoted for catharsis and supporting their adaptive capacities before intervening depression and any psychiatric disorders. Postvention is also provided to minimise the risk of imitative or copycat suicides, but there is a lack of evidence based standard protocol. But the general goal of the mental health practitioner is to decrease the likelihood of others identifying with the suicidal behaviour of the deceased as a coping strategy in dealing with adversity.

Risk Assessment

Warning Signs

Warning signs of suicide can allow individuals to direct people who may be considering suicide to get help.

Behaviours that may be warning signs include:

  1. Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves.
  2. Suicidal ideation: thinking, talking, or writing about suicide, planning for suicide.
  3. Substance abuse.
  4. Feelings of purposelessness.
  5. Anxiety, agitation, being unable to sleep, or sleeping all the time.
  6. Feelings of being trapped.
  7. Feelings of hopelessness.
  8. Social withdrawal.
  9. Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from sad to very calm or happy.
  10. Recklessness or impulsiveness, taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving extremely fast.
  11. Mood changes including depression.
  12. Feelings of uselessness.
  13. Settling outstanding affairs, giving away prized or valuable possessions, or making amends when they are otherwise not expected to die (as an example, this behaviour would be typical in a terminal cancer patient but not a healthy young adult).
  14. Strong feelings of pain, either emotional or physical considering oneself burdensome.
  15. Increased use of drugs or alcohol.

Additionally, the National Institute for Mental Health includes feeling burdensome, and strong feelings of pain – either emotional or physical – as warning signs that someone may attempt suicide.

Direct Talks

An effective way to assess suicidal thoughts is to talk with the person directly, to ask about depression, and assess suicide plans as to how and when it might be attempted. Contrary to popular misconceptions, talking with people about suicide does not plant the idea in their heads. However, such discussions and questions should be asked with care, concern and compassion. The tactic is to reduce sadness and provide assurance that other people care. The WHO advises to not say everything will be all right nor make the problem seem trivial, nor give false assurances about serious issues. The discussions should be gradual and specifically executed when the person is comfortable about discussing their feelings. ICARE (Identify the thought, Connect with it, Assess evidences for it, Restructure the thought in positive light, Express or provide room for expressing feelings from the restructured thought) is a model of approach used here.

Screening

The US Surgeon General has suggested that screening to detect those at risk of suicide may be one of the most effective means of preventing suicide in children and adolescents. There are various screening tools in the form of self-report questionnaires to help identify those at risk such as the Beck Hopelessness Scale and Is Path Warm?. A number of these self-report questionnaires have been tested and found to be effective for use among adolescents and young adults. There is however a high rate of false-positive identification and those deemed to be at risk should ideally have a follow-up clinical interview. The predictive quality of these screening questionnaires has not been conclusively validated so it is not possible to determine if those identified at risk of suicide will actually die by suicide. Asking about or screening for suicide does not create or increase the risk.

In approximately 75% of completed suicides, the individuals had seen a physician within the year before their death, including 45 to 66% within the prior month. Approximately 33 to 41% of those who completed suicide had contact with mental health services in the prior year, including 20 percent within the prior month. These studies suggest an increased need for effective screening. Many suicide risk assessment measures are not sufficiently validated, and do not include all three core suicidality attributes (i.e. suicidal affect, behaviour, and cognition). A study published by the University of New South Wales has concluded that asking about suicidal thoughts cannot be used as a reliable predictor of suicide risk.

Underlying Condition

The conservative estimate is that 10% of individuals with psychiatric disorders may have an undiagnosed medical condition causing their symptoms, with some estimates stating that upwards of 50% may have an undiagnosed medical condition which if not causing is exacerbating their psychiatric symptoms. Illegal drugs and prescribed medications may also produce psychiatric symptoms. Effective diagnosis and if necessary medical testing which may include neuroimaging to diagnose and treat any such medical conditions or medication side effects may reduce the risk of suicidal ideation as a result of psychiatric symptoms, most often including depression, which are present in up to 90-95% of cases.

Risk Factors

All people can be at risk of suicide. Risk factors that contribute to someone feeling suicidal or making a suicide attempt may include:

  • Depression, other mental disorders, or substance abuse disorder.
  • Certain medical conditions.
  • Chronic pain.
  • A prior suicide attempt.
  • Family history of a mental disorder or substance abuse.
  • Family history of suicide.
  • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse.
  • Having guns or other firearms in the home.
  • Having recently been released from prison or jail.
  • Being exposed to others’ suicidal behaviour, such as that of family members, peers, or celebrities.
  • Being male.

Support Organisations

Many non-profit organisations exist, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in the United States, which serve as crisis hotlines; it has benefited from at least one crowd-sourced campaign. The first documented programme aimed at preventing suicide was initiated in 1906 in both New York, the National Save-A-Life League and in London, the Suicide Prevention Department of the Salvation Army.

Suicide prevention interventions fall into two broad categories: prevention targeted at the level of the individual and prevention targeted at the level of the population. To identify, review, and disseminate information about best practices to address specific objectives of the National Strategy Best Practices Registry (BPR) was initiated. The Best Practices Registry of Suicide Prevention Resource Centre is a registry of various suicide intervention programmes maintained by the American Association of Suicide Prevention. The programs are divided, with those in Section I listing evidence-based programmes: interventions which have been subjected to in depth review and for which evidence has demonstrated positive outcomes. Section III programmes have been subjected to review.

If you or someone you know displays sign or symptoms of suicidal thoughts or actions these prevention organisations are available:

  • Befrienders Worldwide.
  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
  • Campaign Against Living Miserably.
  • Crisis Text Line.
  • International Association for Suicide Prevention.
  • The Jed Foundation.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
  • Samaritans.
  • SOSAD Ireland.
  • Suicide Prevention Action Network USA.
  • The Trevor Project.
  • Trans Lifeline.

Economics

In the United States it is estimated that an episode of suicide results in costs of about $1.3 million. Money spending on appropriated interventions is estimated to result in a decrease in economic losses that are 2.5 fold greater than the amount spent.