Suicide prevention

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As a suicide prevention initiative, this sign on the Golden Gate Bridge promotes a special telephone, available on the bridge itself, with which persons considering suicide can connect to a crisis hotline.

Suicide prevention is an umbrella term for the collective efforts of local citizen organizations, mental health practitioners and related professionals to reduce the incidence of suicide. Beyond just direct interventions to stop an impending suicide, methods also involve a) treating the psychological and psychophysiological symptoms of depression, b) improving the coping strategies of persons who would otherwise seriously consider suicide, c) reducing the prevalence of conditions believed to constitute risk factors for suicide, and d) giving people hope for a better life after current problems are resolved.

General efforts have included preventive and proactive measures within the realms of medicine and mental health, as well as public health and other fields. Because protective factors such as social support and connectedness, as well as environmental risk factors such as access to lethal means, appear to play significant roles in the prevention of suicide, suicide should not be viewed solely as a medical or mental health issue.[1][2]

In the U.S., suicide prevention efforts are guided by the U.S. National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, published by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2001.[3] 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.[4] The purpose of the Best Practices Registry (BPR) is to identify, review, and disseminate information about best practices to address specific objectives of the National Strategy.


File:United States Army Suicide Prevention Poster.jpg
A United States Army suicide prevention poster

In recognition of the need for comprehensive approaches to suicide prevention, various strategies have been put forth in the last decade.

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, under the direction of the Surgeon General, published the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, establishing a framework for suicide prevention in the U.S. The document calls for a public health approach to suicide prevention, focusing on identifying patterns of suicide and suicidal behavior throughout a group or population (as opposed to exploring the history and health conditions that could lead to suicide in a single individual).[3] The document also outlines 11 specific objectives, listed below :

  1. Promote awareness that suicide is a public health problem that is preventable
  2. Develop broad-based support for suicide prevention
  3. Develop and implement strategies to reduce the stigma associated with being a consumer of mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention services
  4. Develop and implement community-based suicide prevention programs
  5. Promote efforts to reduce access to lethal means and methods of self-harm
  6. Implement training for recognition of at-risk behavior and delivery of effective treatment
  7. Develop and promote effective clinical and professional practices
  8. Increase access to and community linkages with mental health and substance abuse services
  9. Improve reporting and portrayals of suicidal behavior, mental illness and substance abuse in the entertainment and news media
  10. Promote and support research on suicide and suicide prevention
  11. Improve and expand surveillance systems

Specific strategies

Various specific suicide prevention strategies have been used:

  • Selection and training of volunteer citizen groups offering confidential referral services.
  • Promoting mental resilience through optimism and connectedness.
  • Education about suicide, including risk factors, warning signs and the availability of help.
  • Increasing the proficiency of health and welfare services at responding to people in need. This includes better training for health professionals and employing crisis counseling organizations.
  • Reducing domestic violence and substance abuse are long-term strategies to reduce many mental health problems.
  • Reducing access to convenient means of suicide (e.g. toxic substances, handguns).
  • Reducing the quantity of dosages supplied in packages of non-prescription medicines e.g. aspirin.
  • Interventions targeted at high-risk groups.
  • Research. (see below)

It has also been suggested that news media can help prevent suicide by linking suicide with negative outcomes such as pain for the suicide and his 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.[5]


Many methods of intervention have been developed to intercede before suicide is attempted. The general methods include: direct talks, screening for risks, and lethal means reduction. Each is explained in more detail below.

Direct talks

The World Health Organization has noted a very effective way to assess suicidal thoughts is to talk with a person directly, to ask about depression, and assess suicide plans as to how and when it might be attempted.[6] Contrary to popular misconceptions, talking with people about suicide does not plant the idea in their heads.[6] However, such discussions and questions should be asked with care, concern and compassion.[6] 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.[6] However, some people who have talked about suicide have later attempted it, so the discussions should be gradual and specifically when the person is comfortable about discussing his or her feelings.[6]


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a nationwide crisis line in the United States also available in Canada

The U.S. 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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 commit suicide.[10] Asking about or screening for suicide does not appear to increase the risk.[11]

In approximately 75 percent of completed suicides, the individuals had seen a physician within the year before their death, including 45 to 66 percent within the prior month. Approximately 33 to 41 percent 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.[12][13][14][15][16] Research has shown that many suicide risk assessment measures were not sufficiently validated, and do not include all three core suicidality attributes (i.e., suicidal affect, behavior, and cognition).[17]

Lethal means reduction

Means reduction, reducing the odds that a suicide attempter will use highly lethal means, is an important component of suicide prevention.[18]

For years, researchers and health policy planners have theorized and demonstrated that restricting lethal means can help reduce suicide rates, as delaying action until depression passes.[19] There is 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.[20] 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.[21][22]

File:US Navy 091027-N-0000X-001 A photo illustration produced by the Defense Media Agency on suicide prevention.jpg
A photo illustration produced by the Defense Media Agency on suicide prevention

In the United States, numerous studies have concluded that firearm access is associated with increased suicide completion.[23] "About 85% of attempts with a firearm are fatal: that's a much higher case fatality rate than for nearly every other method. Many of the most widely used suicide attempt methods have case fatality rates below 5%.".[24][25]


There are drug[26][27] and talk therapies[28] to prevent suicide, including phone delivery of services.[29] According to randomized, controlled trials, these treatments have improved secondary outcomes, such as depression and suicidal ideation. However, only lithium has improved the primary outcome, of suicide itself. Because suicide is a rare event, most trials will have few or no suicides in either the treatment or control group, so they can't demonstrate effects on suicide itself.

The conservative estimate is that 10% of individuals with psychiatric disorders may have an undiagnosed medical condition causing their symptoms,[30] upwards of 50% may have an undiagnosed medical condition which if not causing is exacerbating their psychiatric symptoms.[31][32] Illegal drugs and prescribed medications may also produce psychiatric symptoms.[33] Effective diagnosis and if necessary medical testing which may include neuroimaging[34] 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.[35]

Recent research has shown that lithium has been effective with lowering the risk of suicide in those with bipolar disorder to the same levels as the general population.[36] Lithium has also proven effective in lowering the suicide risk in those with unipolar depression as well.[37]

There are multiple evidence-based psychotherapeutic talk therapies available to reduce suicidal ideation such as dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) for which multiple studies have reported varying degrees of clinical effectiveness in reducing suicidality. Benefits include a reduction in self-harm behaviours and suicidal ideations.[38][39] Cognitive Behavior Therapy for Suicide Prevention (CBT-SP) is a form of DBT adapted for adolescents at high risk for repeated suicide attempts.[40]

In one randomized, controlled trial, a program that included mobile phone followup reduced suicidal ideation and depression, and increased social support, but did not reduce actual self-harm and most substance abuse.[41]

Respect and self-esteem

The World Health Organization states that "worldwide, suicide is among the top five causes of mortality in the 15- to 19-year age group and in many countries it ranks first or second as a cause of death among both boys and girls in this age group" and recommends "destigmatiz[ing] mental illness" and "strengthening students' self-esteem" to protect "children and adolescents against mental distress and dependency" and enable "them to cope adequately with difficult and stressful life situations." It also says that "specific skills should be available in the education system to prevent bullying and violence in and around the school premises in order to create a safe environment free of intolerance".[42]

Support groups

Many non-profit organizations 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.[43] In addition, some groups such as To Write Love on Her Arms have been promoted using social media to reach more people.

Best Practices Registry

The Best Practices Registry (BPR) For Suicide Prevention is a registry of various suicide intervention programs maintained by the American Association of Suicide Prevention. The programs are divided, with those in Section I listing evidence-based programs: interventions which have been subjected to indepth review and for which evidence has demonstrated positive outcomes. Section III programs have been subjected to review.[44][45]

See also

Suicide prevention organizations


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  38. Canadian Agency for Drugs nd technology in Health: Dialectical Behaviour Therapy in Adolescents for Suicide Prevention: Systematic Review of Clinical-Effectiveness, CADTH Technology Overviews, Volume 1, Issue 1, March 2010 [4]
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  44. Best Practices Registry (BPR) For Suicide Prevention
  45. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).

External links

Agencies and organizations

Journals of suicide prevention research