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To profile the phenomenon of suicide, let’s begin with a stunning statistic released last month by the United Nations World Health Organization. The annual number of completed suicides worldwide, said the WHO, is about 1 million. This compares with about 500,000 global deaths from homicide and about 250,000 killed in the world’s wars. Bluntly put, the suicide total is higher than that of homicide and war combined.

In the United States, suicide is the 11th greatest cause of death. Among teens, it ranks No. 3, behind accidents and homicide. According to the American Association of Suicidology, there are three suicides for every two murders. How do people kill themselves? In the gallery of methods used for suicide, guns prevail. Nearly six of every 10 Americans who take their lives do so with guns. The next most frequent methods are overdoses, hanging and jumping from buildings. About four times as many males as females commit suicide. However, three times as many females attempt it. The disparity is explained by the fact that males choose suicide methods that are more lethal: guns, hanging, jumping from buildings, etc. As a group, white males have the highest rate, accounting for nearly 60 percent of suicides. Female minorities have the lowest.

In the United States, suicide rates are highest among those age 65 and older. Although 13 percent of the population, the elderly account for about 19 percent of all suicides. And most of them, an estimated two-thirds, have seen a physician in the month before taking their lives. For women, the rate of suicide peaks between the ages of 40 and 54. After age 60, it declines. Elderly white men are at the highest risk, and have a suicide rate of approximately 34 suicides per 100,000. Adult males, aged 25 to 65, account for more than half of all suicides. Figures for suicide by teens are especially poignant, since they die with full and often promising lives before them. Suicide among young people has climbed since the 1980’s.

Why do people attempt suicide?

“Usually, suicide is seen as the only option to a situation,” says Klein. The situation is usually some type of loss: a loved one, a job, youth, status, health. “If they can hang in there long enough to get past the situation, they are usually glad they did not take their lives.”

Persuading people to refrain from taking their lives can be difficult, Klein acknowledges. “People don’t see (their pain) is ever going to get better. They don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. They don’t see that it’s ever going to improve.”

Risk factors also play a role. These include: a family history of mental disorder, substance or alcohol abuse, previous suicide attempts, access to firearms, exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, and a family history of violence, including sexual abuse.

Combined with depression, the leading cause of suicide, any one of these factors can put a person over the edge. And depression has more physiological aspects than most of us understand.

Klein: “Research indicates that alterations in neurotransmitters such as serotonin are associated with the risk of suicide. Diminished levels of this brain chemical have been found in patients with depression, impulsive disorders, a history of violent suicide attempts, and also in postmortem brains of suicide victims.”

But Klein is quick to point out that there are people who experience the prime causes of suicide, including depression, without resorting to it. “Suicide and suicidal behavior are not normal responses to stress. Many people have one or more risk factors and are not suicidal.”

Even in the case of a person seemingly determined to commit suicide, the reality may be otherwise. Klein makes a fascinating revelation.

“Eleven people have jumped off the Golden Gate bridge and lived. One study located nine of them. Eight of those nine said they changed their minds on the way down.”

If you are feeling suicidal, call now for help: 1-800-SUICIDE.

~~Copyright © 2004 Long Beach Press-Telegram, Los Angeles Newspaper Group~~