FAQ - Understanding Suicide
What is the best language to use when talking about suicide?
The words we choose can sometimes sound harsh or judgmental, even when we don’t mean them to. It is best to follow the lead of those who have been affected by suicide when talking about this sensitive subject. Although we may hear that someone has "committed suicide," most people find "died by suicide" to be more objective and less judgmental. The term “suicide” is best used to describe the act, but not the person who died in that way. Nobody wants to hear their loved one’s life summed up by the circumstances of their death. It is generally accepted to refer to "someone who died by suicide" with those words, or as a "suicide decedent." The term "successful suicide" can be hurtful and jarring; a suicide is never a success.
How many people die each year by suicide?
In 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available) 39,518 suicide deaths were reported in the United States, making suicide the tenth leading cause of death for Americans.
Is it true that suicides are more frequent around the December holidays?
No, suicides are not more frequent around December holidays. In fact, suicide rates tend to be highest in the spring months, peaking in April, and are below average during the winter months, with the lowest rate in December.
Is the risk for suicide inherited?
Suicide, as well as suicide risk factors such as depression and bipolar illness, tends to run in families. However, having a family member who is depressed or who died by suicide does not mean that you will become depressed or die by suicide. Because they are at greater risk, however, people who have a family history of suicide or mental illness should be particularly alert to psychiatric symptoms in themselves and get an evaluation as early as possible.
Are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people more likely to die by suicide?
Studies to date have not given us good answers about the relationship between sexual orientation and suicide. In large part, that’s because a person’s sexual orientation is not recorded on the death certificate, the primary source of data on national mortality. Gender identify also is not recorded on the death certificate, so we don’t know how suicide rates for transgender people compare with the general population. A considerable number of reliable studies, however, have reported that those who identify as LGBT report higher rates of suicide attempts. Research suggests that stigma and discrimination play a strong role in these elevated rates, along with higher rates of mental illness, including depression and alcohol and drug use.
Wouldn’t most people feel suicidal in really stressful situations, like being left by someone you love, or finding out you have a life-threatening illness?
Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are not the natural consequence of serious life stressors or life-threatening illnesses. People who have such difficult and painful experiences may feel intense sadness or loss, anxiety, anger or a sense of abandonment, and may occasionally have the thought that they would be better off dead. In most people, however, these experiences do not trigger persistent ruminations of death or a genuine desire or plan to die. If such feelings are present it suggests that the person is suffering from depression or some other mental disorder and should seek help.
What causes depression?
Depression is a complex illness and we don’t know exactly what causes it. It occurs in people of all ages, from young children to the elderly. Research shows that visible changes take place in the brain when someone becomes depressed. Genetic factors may play a role. Some people become depressed unexpectedly, out of the blue. Other times, depression develops following a major life change—either a positive or negative one—after a serious physical illness, or following a significant life event. Alcohol, drugs, and certain medications can also contribute to depression.
Are depression and anxiety related?
They can be. Some people experience depression or anxiety independently, but many people who are depressed are also troubled by anxiety. Heightened or excessive worry about things like deadlines or school assignments is sometimes the first sign of depression. Feeling nervous, anxious, or stressed can bring on other symptoms of depression, like having trouble sleeping or concentrating, decreased or increased appetite, or feeling down. An anxious person may feel so much pain and discomfort that they might begin thinking they would be better off dead. This makes it especially important for those who feel anxious as well as depressed to get help.
What is the difference between depression and bipolar disorder?
Depression and bipolar disorder (or manic-depressive disorder) are both mood disorders. People who are depressed tend to feel consistently "down," while those with bipolar disorder alternate between feeling depressed and manic, or "up." Someone who is in a manic phase of their bipolar disorder will typically feel high, like everything is going great, but in a frantic sort of way. They may also feel irritable, agitated, distracted, grandiose (“full of themselves”). They sleep less and don’t feel tired. They may be extra talkative, work in a frenzied manner, or show excessive or impulsive behavior, like going on shopping sprees. These manic mood swings are generally severe enough to markedly interfere with work, school, or relationships, although for some they are less severe. Untreated bipolar disorder is a risk factor for suicide and should be treated by a trained mental health professional, usually a psychiatrist.
I know someone who died by suicide, and he didn’t seem depressed.
Sometimes, even close friends or family members don’t know that their loved one is depressed. People who are depressed don’t always act the way we expect they would. They may not seem sad, tearful, or withdrawn. Men who are depressed may seem angry or irritable rather than sad. Not all people who end their lives are depressed. Some experience anxiety, are abusing drugs or alcohol, or have an eating disorder. For teens, becoming physically aggressive or destructive, or persistently breaking rules, is a risk factor for suicide.
Some suicides appear to be impulsive or spur-of-the-moment, or may follow a very upsetting event. But while we all go through painful experiences, suicide is not a normal response, and only a small percentage of people react by taking their lives. Suicide almost always results from the pain and desperation of a mental illness. When researchers carefully examine suicide deaths through a "psychological autopsy," they often find that the person had been suffering from an unrecognized, untreated mental disorder, like depression or bipolar disorder.
Doesn’t alcohol help you feel less stressed out and depressed?
If you feel depressed, drinking may seem to put you in a better mood and help you to forget your troubles. But that effect is short-lived. Alcohol is actually classified as a depressant, meaning that it always makes depression worse in the long run. It can impair your judgment and reduce inhibition, causing you to do things you wish you hadn’t. Drinking can make you feel irritable and angry, making it harder to get along with family and friends. It can also interfere with sleep and make it hard to concentrate, or to cope with work or other activities. Depressed teens trying to avoid being caught for under-age drinking may lie and withdraw from their parents and other adults, just when they need them most. Adults who drink excessively commonly feel guilty or have poor self-esteem. For all of these reasons, alcohol is estimated to be a factor in at least 25 to 30 percent of all suicides.
Will asking someone if they are considering suicide plant the idea in their mind?
Studies show that people do not start thinking about suicide just because someone asks them about it. If you suspect a friend or loved one is suicidal, tell them that you are worried and want to help them. Don’t be afraid to ask whether they are considering suicide, and if they have a specific plan in mind. Having a plan may indicate that they are farther along and need help right away. Sometimes people who are thinking about suicide won’t tell you so because they don’t want you to stop them. Your direct, non-judgmental questions can encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings. Regardless of their response, if you suspect that the person may be suicidal, get help immediately.
Adapted from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Frequently Asked Questions for Understanding Suicide
Local and National Resources
Counseling and Psychological Services Center
University Police Department
Emergencies: (828) 262-8000
Dean of Students
Counseling for Faculty
Daymark Recovery Services
After Hours/Crises Line: (828) 264-4357
Finding Hope: Survivors of Suicide Support Group
The Trevor Project