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Why Do People Become Suicidal and What Can I do to Help?

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Why do people become suicidal?

You may be wondering why people become vulnerable to suicidal crises in the first place. There is no simple answer to this question as the conditions that cause each individual to enter a suicidal crisis are unique. We discuss the major risk factors and suicide triggers in our introductory article (click here to review this information). It is likely that a combination of these factors and triggers will be present simultaneously in order to cause someone to contemplate or attempt suicide. In other words, there is no one reason why people become suicidal. Instead, people become vulnerable to suicide due to a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. For instance, people may inherit a tendency to develop a mental illness. They may fail to learn how to cope effectively with stress for any number of reasons. People may also experience painful, disturbing and/or traumatic events that overwhelm the coping mechanisms they have developed.

As discussed in our introductory suicide article, the most frequent precipitating cause of suicide is the onset of mental illness. Mental illness is estimated to account for about 90% of all suicides. Depression is the most common mental illness experienced by people who commit suicide. Fortunately, depression and most other mental illnesses are treatable conditions and a wide variety of effective treatments are available. Treating the underlying depression will in most cases also treat the motivation for suicide and cause it to go away. For this reason, it is important that suicidal patients be examined and treated for depression and similar mental illnesses once the immediate danger associated with a given suicidal crisis is over. The best way to receive effective treatment for depression is to consult with a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist. For more information about depression and its treatment, visit our depression center.

What can I do to help the suicidal person?

As a friend or family member of a suicidal person, you can help in several very important ways. First, you can help interrupt and disarm any active suicide attempts and defuse the danger of the immediate crisis situation. Second, you can help the suicidal person get connected to a mental health professional who can offer him or her effective support and intervention. Third, you can provide ongoing support and "cheerleading" as the person participates in treatment, practices new methods of coping and continues on with the often stressful business of day-to-day living.

In order to be effective in your helping, it will be necessary for you to go easy on any tendency you might have to judge the suicidal person. You must keep in mind that stress affects each person differently. Just because you might be able to handle something doesn't mean that everyone else can too with similar ease. There are often complicating factors that alter people's ability to cope that you may not know about, or about which you may not have proper perspective. Your judgment may end up being quite unfair and inappropriate. It will also certainly be perceived as criticism during a time when criticism is especially unwelcome. Do what you can to put judgment aside and simply act compassionately. Try to provide true assistance by helping the suicidal person find the professional help that he or she needs in order to safely resolve the crisis.

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