Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day

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Suicide is a major public health issue and accounts for nearly 3% of all deaths worldwide — around the world, one million people will die by suicide this year. But suicide is a taboo subject that many people, regardless of age, sex, socioeconomic status or religious and cultural affiliations, are ashamed of, and rarely speak about. This veil of secrecy leads to needless deaths worldwide. So as a result, today was designated as World Suicide Prevention Day, which is designed to raise public awareness of suicide, to encourage discussion and to increase understanding about it. The goal is to remove the stigma associated with depression and suicidality because this powerful social taboo prevents people from seeking the help they need and especially places men at great at risk for completed suicide.

As some of you know, I have a love-fear relationship with suicide. I almost succeeded with my own suicide a little more than one year ago. But this actually was the second time I had made a serious attempt; the first time was when I was 15 years old, when I was homeless and shunned by my entire family. The events that led to my own decision to kill myself this second time were many and complicated; long-term unemployment, my inability to find another job, loss of respect from my professional and peer communities, fear of impending homelessness and intense social isolation. These all were combined with the effects of bipolar disorder that had gone suddenly out of control due to a lack mental discipline that I typically devoted to my chosen career. All of these events caused me feel intense physical pain from despair, hopelessness, anxiety and abandonment. I mean, who wouldn’t want to kill themselves under such circumstances?

But who is most susceptible to suicide? The statistics show that men between the ages of 19 and 34 year old are the highest risk group for completed suicides, but suicide is also a concern for men over the age of 65, especially caucasian men. The most dangerous period for completed suicides for women is during middle age. But keep in mind that no age group or sex is exempt from suicide, and in fact, I think any one of us is susceptible to suicide under the right circumstances, that suicide risk is dependent upon various life events rather than mere age-and-sex demographics. So here are the main risk factors that you need to be alert to;

  1. suffering from a psychiatric illness such as;
    • schizophrenia
    • bipolar disorder
    • unipolar depression (“clinical depression”)
    • post-traumatic stress disorder or other anxiety disorder
    • anorexia nervosa or bulimia
    • drug or alcohol abuse, especially when combined with depression
    • personality disorders, especially borderline or antisocial personality disorders
  2. previous suicide attempts
  3. family history of suicide or of psychiatric disorders
  4. highly impulsive
  5. biochemically, it is accompanied by low concentrations of the serotonin metabolite, 5-hydroxyindoleactic acid (5-HIAA) in cerebrospinal fluid

Often, suicide is triggered in an already despairing individual by a single event, such as;

  1. loss of a loved one due to separation, divorce or death or loss of a career (career loss was the single most influential contribution to my own decision)
  2. an intense mixed emotional state where depression is combined with another powerful emotion, such as desperation, rage, psychic pain, anxiety, guilt, hopelessness, or an acute sense of abandonment (I also suffered from a powerful mixed state when I was brought to the hospital)

Suicidality is often accompanied by changes in behavior, such as;

  1. the individual suggests that s/he is a burden on others, an embarassment, that s/he is worth more dead than alive, that others would be “better off without me” or makes allusions to going on a trip somewhere (I talked about going on a trip)
  2. putting one’s affairs in order to purchasing a gun (I wrote my will and was giving away my beloved books)
  3. decreased ability to function professionally or socially, increasing use of alcohol, or other self-destructive behaviors, loss of control, explosive rage or suddenly isolating oneself (I completely withdrew from all social contact and neither saw nor spoke to anyone for nearly six months)

What can you do if you think that a friend or loved one is contemplating suicide? First of all, take them seriously. More than 70% of all people who do commit suicide will say something about it before they do so, even if it is a subtle warning. If you think someone is suicidal, do not leave this person alone, and listen carefully what he has to say, without making judgmental statements and without giving advice. Be sure to let your friend know of your concern for his continued well-being and encourage him to talk about what is troubling him. Also ask if he has a suicide plan and how far he has progressed towards accomplishing it. And of course, if you think this person is in immediate danger, go with him to the nearest hospital emergency room (he will more likely go with someone he knows and trusts than with a stranger).

Sources

Stop A Suicide Today

International Association for Suicide Prevention

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Center for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada

HealthInsite Australia

Candlelight vigils in Ireland

Comments

  1. #1 Christopher Taylor
    September 10, 2007

    Congratulations on writing this post. Keep up the good work.

  2. #2 Sandra
    September 11, 2007

    Great post!

  3. #3 Cecile Weekly
    September 11, 2007

    Thanks for sharing all this information.

    4 years ago one of my best friends committed suicide. I recently wrote a column about if and/or when it’s ‘acceptable’ for someone to take their own lives. You may find it interesting, I’d like to hear you thoughts on it:

    http://www.cecile-weekly.com/index.php/so-many-questions/

  4. #4 tom nagy
    December 1, 2007

    Excellent post!
    One question: in view of the recent CBS investigation conducted by the acting head of the departments of epidemiology and biostatistics (U. of Georgia) of veterans, shouldn’t deployment to Iraq be added to the list of risk facts?

    Using death certificates from 40 states and adjusting for the usual factors, the study found that vets have double the risk of suicide compared to non vets.

    More alarming and devestating is the fact that the death certificates disclosed that 17 vets/day had committed suicide in 2005 (evidently the most recent year for which the requisite data were available).

    Finally, has there been any discussion of this compelling study on any of the science blogs?

  5. #5 "GrrlScientist"
    December 1, 2007

    unfortunately, there has been no discussion about these data on any scienceblogs. i would be interested to have a reference to that data, if there is one.

    i am currently working on another essay about suicide that should appear soon on my blog — i have to admit, i’ve been having my own battles in this area recently, which has slowed my writing more than i like, which makes me feel worse, which makes me write even less, etc. — you get the picture. anyway, i try to make sure that suicide remains an issue that is in front of the public because it is so important, especially because it is taboo.

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