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Suicide rates and suicide risk factors

Updated on February 20, 2014


Suicide is the ultimate self-destructive act. An action that is virtually unknown in other animal species, a human being taking his own life is an event that invariably causes devastation to the surviving loved ones.

In the USA around 38,000 people commit suicide each year; one person every 14 minutes. The United Kingdom has a similar suicide rate (about 12 per 100,000 population) with around 6,000 people aged 15 and over killing themselves in 2011, the most recent year for which official figures are available.

Although these levels of self-destruction seem disturbingly high, they are without doubt significant under-estimates. Suicide is a legal verdict and coroners are reluctant to draw this conclusion unless there is unequivocal evidence to support it, being mindful of the detrimental impact a suicide verdict might have on relatives, both emotionally and economically – life assurance policies tend not to pay out following a suicide. To illustrate, what this means in practice is that if a person hangs himself and leaves a suicide-note the verdict will be suicide; if someone has been expressing unhappiness and later drowns in a river the likelihood is that a different verdict will be reached.

Many myths are associated with suicide. What follows are 9 snippets of information, all supported by the research evidence, that are intended to promote a better understanding of the subject.

More males than females commit suicide

Men are 3- to 4-times more likely to kill themselves than women. In the USA the 45 to 54 age group had the highest suicide rate, whereas in the UK it was men aged 30 to 44.

With regards to sub-lethal deliberate self-harm (variously referred to as parasuicide, attempted suicide, failed suicide or self-mutilation) women outnumber men by a ratio of about 3-to-1.


Deliberate self-harm is a risk factor for future suicide

People who regularly engage in deliberate self-harm, such as drug-overdose or self-mutilation, may do so for a variety of reasons. For example, some people display such self-loathing that they harm themselves as a form of self-punishment whereas others may cut themselves as a way of regulating overwhelming emotional pain. Thus, sub-lethal self-harm is often not a failed suicide attempt but, instead, fulfils a number of other functions.

As such, mental health professionals frequently view the deliberate self-harm and suicide groups as being distinct populations. Although there are clear differences between self-harmers and suicide-completers, there is also significant overlap. For example, deliberate self-harm is one of the strongest predictors of future suicide. People who deliberately self-harm have a 1% chance of killing themselves in the subsequent 12-month period. Although this figure might not sound particularly striking, it represents a 100-fold increase on the risk of suicide for the general population.

The most common reason for taking a deliberate drug-overdose is, "I felt so desperate I didn't know what else to do."

Most of the people who present to Emergency Rooms/Accident & Emergency Departments after deliberate self-harm have taken drug-overdoses. The reasons for doing so are many and varied, and most people who ingest drug overdoses do not have a desire to die as their primary motive.

A number of research studies have asked drug-overdose patients, while they recover in a hospital bed, to pick from a list of possible reasons that underpinned their actions. The consistent finding is that the most frequently endorsed reason is, “I felt so desperate I didn’t know what else to do,” suggesting a perceived lack of less destructive alternatives.

Suicidal people are often poor at solving interpersonal problems

Research has shown that suicidal people are less effective at solving interpersonal problems than equally depressed, non-suicidal people.

To illustrate the difference between an effective problem-solver and an ineffective one, consider a man who has moved into a new neighbourhood, does not know anybody but wants to make friends. How should he go about it? A good problem-solver would be able to generate a range of specific and proactive ways of increasing the chances of forming friendships, for example: throwing a house-warming party; going for a drink in the local pub; taking the dog for a walk and striking up conversations with other dog-walkers; and knocking on the neighbour’s door to introduce himself. A poor problem-solver would struggle to generate potential solutions, instead relying on passive strategies such as “wait and see what develops.”

Difficulties resolving interpersonal problems may elevate the suicide risk, as life’s challenges are more likely to be viewed as insoluble with death being perceived as the only available solution.


Hopelessness is a strong predictor of suicide

Suicide risk increases as hope for a better future diminishes. While a person believes that things will get better in the future, emotional pain can be tolerated. But if no improvement is expected, despair ensues and the likelihood of self-destruction escalates.

It has long been recognized that high levels of hopelessness are associated with a greater risk of suicide. But what underpins hopelessness? Is it the anticipation that lots of negative events are imminent? Or is it the perception that nothing positive will happen in the future? Or is it a bit of both? Research has shown that hopelessness is synonymous with a lack of positive anticipation.

Social deprivation and economic adversity may contribute to an objective perception of a future devoid of positive experiences. But for many people who feel hopeless about the future the perception is a distorted one that can be rectified by psychological therapy.

Ease of access to means of self-harm will influence the suicide rate

Suicidal states of mind are typically dynamic, the urge to self-destruct fluctuating in intensity. Therefore, the ease of access to potentially lethal means can be a crucial factor in determining whether a person survives.

Trends in suicidal activity support the idea that access to lethal methods influences the suicide rate. Sixty years ago, a common way of committing suicide was to put one’s head in the gas oven. Detoxification of the domestic gas supply in the 1960s and 1970s corresponded to a fall in the suicide rate. Conversely, between 1980 and 2000, the rate of suicide via carbon-monoxide poisoning (from car exhausts) paralleled the increase in motor-vehicle use.

Psychiatric services try to deny suicidal patients access to lethal methods of self-harm by, for example, removing ligature points from psychiatric in-patient wards (to reduce opportunities for hanging) and only prescribing limited amounts of medication at one time (to reduce opportunities of drug-overdose).

People who commit suicide have usually told someone of their intentions

It is a common myth that people who are seriously considering suicide do not express their intentions to anyone. Research has shown that most suicide completers have told a family member, friend or health professional of their suicidal ideas in the months preceding their deaths. It is therefore important to always take expressions of suicide intent seriously.

Despite this inclination to express suicidal ideas, most people who commit suicide have never been in contact with psychiatric services.

The risk of suicide can increase when someone's mental state is improving

Paradoxically, the risk of suicide for a person with mental health problems can rise as mental state improves. For example, a severely depressed patient might have insufficient motivation or clarity of thought to carry out a suicidal act, and it might be at the point when mood is improving that suicide risk peaks. Similarly, a floridly psychotic patient might be at increased risk of suicide when insight returns and he is able to gauge the detrimental impact of a mental disorder on career and relationships.

The presence of protective factors can lessen the risk of suicide

When a person is feeling desperate, and considering suicide, there may be protective factors that give a person reasons for living. A common protective factor is the presence of children, the suicidal person not wishing to inflict the trauma of suicide on their surviving offspring. Another disincentive might be a religious doctrine that views suicide as a sin, the person contemplating suicide being fearful about what awaits in the afterlife should he deliberately take his own life.


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    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      4 years ago from Lancashire, England

      CyberShelley - Thank you for your supportive comments. I agree that many people experience mental anguish that drives them to consider suicide. Best wishes.

    • CyberShelley profile image

      Shelley Watson 

      4 years ago

      Well researched subject - it is such a dreadful thing for anyone to have to face. One can understand if you are facing a dread disease and living in pain, it's the mental pain that some people have that is so gut wrenching. Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      4 years ago from Lancashire, England

      I appreciate your interest, Colin. Your work as a Samaritan will no doubt have provided a lots of insight into the personal side of human suffering. And as you rightly say, relationships/support of other people is important.

    • profile image

      Colin Neville 

      4 years ago

      I worked as a volunteer with The Samaritans for five years so found this hub of particular interest, as it certainly relates to my own experiences of telephone listening to people with suicidal tendencies. Christmas and the New Year tended to be a high-risk/peak time, from a Samaritan telephone listening, perspective, as the loneliness and emptiness of isolated people's lives really kicked in at that time.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      4 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thank you, DDE, for your generous comments.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Interesting and helpful. Your points are made very clear and with unique facts. A thoroughly researched hub that shows very important information on a delicate topic.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thanks for the endorsement, Fairuz.

      (I hope you enjoyed your honeymoon!).

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Brilliant article Gary. V informative.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Say Yes To Life

      Thank you for your interest and taking the time to leave a detailed comment.

      The high-risk age-group figures are taken from the latest official suicide statistics in the USA and UK. The highest risk age-groups have fluctuated over the last decade or so - I too can remember when it was older people.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 

      5 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      Thanks for this hub. I'd like to add a few things.

      The reason more men successfully commit suicide is because they're more likely to use violent means (guns, jumping from a high place), which is more effective. Women make more attempts, but use less violent means (drug overdose, slitting wrists), which are less effective. Even though women are more comfortable expressing their emotions, they're also less likely to be in control of their lives, which is why they make more attempts.

      I'm surprised you listed the most common age group as being between 45 and 54. This must be a really recent development, with people in that age group losing their retirement. I've always been taught the elderly, especially past 80, are most likely to commit suicide, with teens ranking second. In both instances, the reason is similar; loss of hope, the elderly because their best years are behind them, the teens because they dread what the future holds. Native Americans have the highest teen suicide rate in the US for that reason.

      Some cultures accept suicide, under certain circumstances. Japan does, and so to the native tribes of Alaska. Also, I've read of near death experiences of suicides; generally, those who are old, sick or disabled physically or mentally are accepted into heaven, while those who do so to hurt the living are more likely to wander this Earth in spiritual form and observe the pain they caused by their act.

      Again, thanks for this informational hub!

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Denise. And your fan-mail!

    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      5 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      Excellent research on a difficult topic. You have presented the facts and figures well, and no doubt, given information that will help people to avoid suicide in the future. Thank you for writing!

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Thank you for your supportive comments.

      Communication, and feeling part of a social network, are clearly important protective factors. The official suicide rates in the UK had been coming down over the last few years, until the latest (2011) figure showed a small increase - only time will tell as to whether this rise is a blip or the start of an upward trend.

    • profile image

      Better Emotions 

      5 years ago

      Very good advice here. Suicide is definitely on the rise throughout the world and I think the breaking of family bonds is one of the major reasons for this. There is so much lack of communication between parents and children, between spouses, etc that sometimes people just feel alone. When they look around they see no one worth living for.

      Focusing on the good things present in life and feeling grateful about these can be a major deterrent for someone who may be slowly moving towards suicide.

      Thanks for sharing.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Yes women seem more able to express their emotions to others and this does seem to be protective.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      Wise words. Sorry to hear that you have been personally touched by such a tragedy.

    • gsidley profile imageAUTHOR

      Dr. Gary L. Sidley 

      5 years ago from Lancashire, England

      jabelufiroz - thanks for your generous comments.

    • mariasial profile image

      maria sial 

      5 years ago from united kingdom

      I believe people are not able to share their problems with their friends and family. In most of cases no friend and family exist, so the person feel help less, lonely and commit such things. Women are believe to share their problems and even cry openly, therefore suicide rate is low in females however males usually hide their emotions and end up with such a tragic end.

      We all need to look around ourselves and make sure to initiate communication with those in trouble.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Thanks for sharing this. This is a topic that we just do not like to discuss. I recently published an article on this topic as well. My personal experiences left me feeling powerless and saddened beyond what a death we would expect or understand can.

      Attention needs to be paid to family and friends who may be depressed. Even that is often not enough..sadly. But trying to intervene may help save ONE life.

      Angels are on the way to you this evening. ps

    • jabelufiroz profile image


      5 years ago from India

      Great hub on the facts about suicide rates and suicide risk factors.


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