Suicide is not only the consequence of specific mental problems, but is associated with a number of global risk factors that affect a large number of people. In this article we will analyze the most relevant factors in suicide and its prevention , as well as the most common methods of psychological intervention in these cases.

Relevant factors in suicide

According to data from the World Health Organization (2014), more than 800,000 people in the world commit suicide each year ; it is the tenth cause of death worldwide. If we also add up the unconsummated attempts, the number increases approximately tenfold, and many people have recurrent suicidal thoughts that they do not even execute.

The most common methods of suicide vary from place to place, but usually include asphyxiation, poisoning and, in places where these are easily accessible, the use of firearms. There is a higher risk of suicide in people over 70 and in those between 15 and 30; in the latter case richer countries are an exception.

The conception of suicide as a taboo and a crime , which is present in most cultures, has historically hindered human communication on this subject and its naturalization, and consequently also the prevention of this phenomenon. Even in the field of clinical psychology it is a sensitive issue because of the frequency of reports to professionals.

It is important to keep in mind that suicide is not simply a mental problem that arises in certain people, but that there are many variables that affect the entire general population or some groups and that increase the risk of suicide, such as psychosocial stress and lack of economic resources.

Some of the risk factors most clearly associated with suicide , according to the available scientific literature, are the following:

  • Stressful life events, such as death of spouse, severe financial hardship or bullying (in children)
  • Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, OCD, and other psychological problems that lead to hopelessness
  • Social stigmatization of mental disorders, especially suicidal rumination
  • Suicidal ideation and references to the possibility of suicide
  • Abuse and dependence of alcohol, benzodiazepines, heroin and other central nervous system depressants
  • Personal or family history of suicide attempts
  • Access to firearms, poison or other deadly instruments
  • Head injuries and other brain damage

How to prevent suicide?

The traditional approach to suicide prevention has been to study the risk factors in order to modify them in those people in whom such ideas are detected. However, it is not very clear that this approach is effective; in this sense, the necessary measures are most likely to lie at a deeper level of society.

The WHO recommends to all states in the world the adoption of a series of measures for the prevention of suicide , which are also relevant from a practical point of view due to the high public cost that health care can entail. At the end of this article you can find the reference to this text.

This organization also recommends strategies such as emergency hospitalization for people at high risk of suicide, treatment of the problems underlying suicidal ideation, participation in support groups, and the practice of psychologically beneficial activities such as physical exercise and meditation.

On the other hand, it is important to mention what factors protect against suicide. In general we can highlight the following:

  • Presence of a strong social and family support network
  • Active participation in the community or society
  • Access to therapeutic and psychosocial services
  • Good interpersonal and problem-solving skills
  • High degree of self-control and self-efficacy expectations
  • Proper management of stressful life events
  • Treatment of underlying psychological disorders
  • Beliefs and values that encourage seeking support or reject suicide

Methods of psychological intervention

Among all the psychological intervention programs, the one that stands out most for its effectiveness in preventing suicide is the one developed by Marsha Linehan for borderline personality disorder. Research shows a reduction in suicide attempts and hospitalizations in people treated with this method.

Approximately half of the people who commit suicide meet the criteria for major depressive disorder . In this sense, cognitive therapy and behavioral activation therapy, which is derived from the previous one, have been shown to be useful in reducing suicidal ideation and the rest of the depressive symptoms.

From the field of health psychology, mainly in collaboration with public entities, tasks of a psycho-educational nature and emotional or social support are sometimes promoted, and some screening tests are also administered to at-risk populations, such as adolescents. However, this type of intervention is quite scarce in many places.

More generally, it is important to note that suicide is mainly associated with a low quality of life . Any political measure that improves the satisfaction and well-being of people in a place will decrease their risk of suicide, such as improving access to health services or increasing average salaries.

Bibliographic references:

  • Linehan, M. M., Rizvi, S. L., Shaw-Welch, S. & Page, B. (2000). Psychiatric aspects of suicidal behaviour: personality disorders. In Hawton, K. & Van Heeringen, K. (Eds.), “International Handbook of Suicide and Attempted Suicide”. Sussex, United Kingdom: John Wiley & Sons.
  • World Health Organization (2014). Suicide prevention: a global imperative. Geneva: World Health Organization.