The Medical Minute: Suicide: A Public Health Crisis

80 percent of the individuals who die by suicide are men

Each day in the United States, 123 people take their own lives. For each of those deaths, at least 25 more people attempt suicide.

The statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention support Dr. Ahmad Hameed’s opinion that suicide has become a public health crisis.

Hameed, a psychiatrist and vice chair for education in the Department of Psychiatry at Penn State Health, says the problem has become so big because the individuals with mental health disorders don’t believe that there is any hope left.

“The majority of the time those who are suffering want to seek help and they want to live, but are ashamed to ask for help,” he said.

About 90 to 95 percent of individuals who die by suicide have either a diagnosed or diagnosable mental health disorder. Although major depressive disorder is the most well-known, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and drug or alcohol disorders are also related to a higher incidence of suicide.

Hameed said the vast majority of individuals who succeed at taking their own lives are men, often because they choose more lethal means than women. About 80 percent of the individuals who die by suicide are men. More than half of the suicides nationwide are completed with a firearm. Women often choose less lethal means like overdoses, where there is more of a chance for survival. “When the bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, there’s no taking it back,” he said.

Dr. Julie Radico, a clinical psychologist who teaches family medicine residents in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Penn State Health, said the residents engage in training to help them look for warning signs and red flags that could signal that someone is suicidal.

She said these front-line health care professionals are critical for prevention because statistics show many of those who die from suicide had seen a health care provider during their last month of life. “This could be in part because the providers had failed to ask about or detect it,” she said.

Radico said a health care professional is six times more likely to learn if someone is suicidal by asking rather than waiting for the patient to bring up the subject. That’s why Penn State Health family practice providers ask depression screening questions of every patient at every visit. Depending on the patient’s answers, more detailed questions and a conversation follow.

“There is no research that shows that someone is at increased risk of suicide if you ask them about it,” she said. “It’s just that you are more likely to learn about it and be able to help them.”

She said providers are trained to distinguish between passing thoughts of suicide—which are not uncommon—and suicidal thoughts that are persistent and intense. “The main three factors are whether they have the intent, a plan and the means to carry it out.”

Health care providers can help patients come up with a safety plan which could include coping strategies, ways to avoid triggers, medication, visits to a therapist or counselor or social supports.

If someone is in immediate danger to him or herself or others, a call to a crisis hotline, local law enforcement or a visit to the emergency room might be merited depending on the situation.

Hameed said, “It’s prudent not to wait.”

Learn more:

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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3 thoughts on “The Medical Minute: Suicide: A Public Health Crisis

    • Qualia

      Facts are facts, if facts seem to equal anti maybe a little more DEEP thought instead of a knee jerk blind denial would save a few lives. If facts bolster the anti-gun lobby maybe you should deal with those facts instead of ignoring them, denial of a fact has NEVER changed a fact.

  1. Qualia

    Research has shown that the time
    immediately following a firearm purchase is
    a particularly high-risk period for suicide.
    A study of handgun sales in California found
    that suicide was the leading cause of death
    for handgun purchasers in the year following
    purchase. In the first week after purchase,
    the firearm suicide rate among purchasers
    was 57 times higher than that of the general

    This statistic plainly shows that
    some firearms are bought for the purpose of
    carrying out a suicide. ”

    But still medical care is a privilege and not a right in this country

    “Visits with health care providers represent
    critical opportunities to intervene before a
    suicide attempt.”

    “Firearms pose a particular risk to older
    Americans whose mental clarity is often
    affected by the side effects of medication
    or dementia. In particular, Americans with
    dementia often experience confusion, anxiety,
    aggressiveness, and paranoia. Of those
    experiencing dementia, 40 to 60 percent live in
    a home with a firearm. These firearms are also
    less likely to be stored safely.”

    “households with adolescents are
    more likely to store a firearm loaded and
    unlocked.”, “the
    vast majority (82 percent) of firearm suicides
    among adolescents involve a gun belonging
    to a family member; roughly 75 percent use a
    parent’s gun.”

    What happens when the doctors fear of prescribing opioids means pain becomes a part of your life so just man up sissy? Or the government and medias constant attack on opioids as evil creates a stigma that prevents even asking in fear of being seen as a dope head or potential addict, that gun starts to look like a viable option.
    We should not forget pain relief is actually a medical right, do no harm, the fact that some doctors over prescribe, that many people have no self control, that politicians use it for attention and a potential cash cow of “free” lawsuit revenue should not prevent adequate pain relief thus potentially preventing a suicide and gasp, actually improving a citizens welfare and quality of life.

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