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Why Are More than One in Ten Americans at Risk for Suicide?

February 15, 2012 | 66,125 views
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By Dr. Mercola

Thoughts of suicide are disturbingly common among Americans, which is detailed in the report, the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), newly released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

While one in five Americans experienced some sort of mental illness in the past year (rising to nearly 30 percent among 18-25-year olds), 8.7 million contemplated suicide.

Approximately 2.5 million people took their suicidal thoughts a step further and made plans to carry out the suicide, whereas 1.1 million actually attempted it.

Suicide is a Leading Cause of Death

It's estimated that a person commits suicide every 15 minutes in the United States, and each day just over 100 people take their own lives.

For each of these suicide deaths, an estimated 8-25 people made suicide attempts.1

Taken together, the latest preliminary 2010 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists intentional self-harm, or suicide, as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

In all, nearly 37,800 suicide deaths were reported in 2010, a number the CDC notes is likely underestimated.2

Suicide deaths can occur at any age, but young people, especially those between the ages of 18 and 25 are most likely to have suicidal thoughts, according to the NSDUH report. If you have watched or read any news lately, it is likely you have heard some of the tragic stories about young people committing suicide.

Lately, media focus has been drawn to children killing themselves as a result of being bullied, which has sparked numerous debates and new anti-bullying legislation in a number of states. But bullying is only one factor...

This is also a primary age range of military personnel, another subset of the population that has alarmingly high rates of suicide. Since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, more than 1,100 soldiers have taken their lives, including a record 301 in 2010 alone. In July 2011, the Army reported 32 soldiers had committed suicide, which is the highest monthly suicide toll yet reported. In the case of soldiers, many have clearly suffered emotional trauma from the experience of battle, but other youth are struggling with their own feelings of desperation and despair.

It is truly disheartening that so many of our youth feel hopeless enough to take their own lives. It makes it doubly tragic that so many parents must endure the mental anguish of losing a child—especially losing a child to suicide. So what is behind this tragic epidemic?

More Than 90 Percent of People Who Commit Suicide Suffer From This…

If you have a family history of suicide, have been exposed to suicidal behavior (such as from other family members or friends) or have suffered/witnessed physical or sexual abuse or domestic violence, your risk of suicidal behavior increases.

However, the primary risk factor is the existence of another mental condition, such as depression, often in combination with substance abuse. It's estimated that more than 90 percent of those who end up taking their own lives fit into this category.3 Depression can indeed progress to suicide if left unaddressed, but the knee-jerk conventional treatment for the condition is almost exclusively prescription antidepressants.

Every year, more than 253 million prescriptions for antidepressants are filled in the United States, making them the second most prescribed drug class in the United States (second only to cholesterol-lowering drugs).4 This includes use among children, where in the U.S. kids are getting three times more prescriptions for antidepressants and stimulants, and up to double the amount of antipsychotic drugs than kids from Germany and the Netherlands.

But how effective are antidepressants in alleviating the symptoms of depression?

Antidepressants are Often Ineffective and May Increase Your Suicidal Tendencies

Studies continue to show antidepressant drugs are no more effective than a placebo, and in some case less effective. A study published in the January 2010 issue of JAMA concluded there is little evidence that SSRIs (a popular group of antidepressants that includes Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft) have any benefit to people with mild to moderate depression.5 Researchers stated:

"The magnitude of benefit of antidepressant medication compared with placebo... may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms."

SSRIs were found to be 33 percent effective, just like a sugar pill—but with far more adverse effects, including violence and suicidal thoughts and actions. There is much evidence that antidepressants intensify violent thoughts and behaviors, both suicidal and homicidal, especially among children. And, since the late 1980s, there have been frequent reports of increased violent behavior, including homicides and suicides, among individuals taking antidepressant drugs.

A newly published study provides a plausible theory about how a genetic mutation in the CYP450 gene family can cause a metabolic disturbance resulting in uncontrollable violent impulses and behaviors, including suicide, in some individuals taking these drugs.6

So if you or your child are taking an antidepressant drug, it's important to be aware that suicidal thoughts may be a side effect. But they are not the only drugs to watch out for. Other medications also linked to increased suicide risks include:

  • The stop-smoking drug Chantix
  • Accutane, an acne drug
  • Singulair, an allergy drug
  • Certain epilepsy drugs
  • Tamiflu, a flu drug
  • Cholesterol-lowering drugs

Emotional Factors to be on the Lookout For

While the role of medications (particularly antidepressants) in suicide cannot be ignored, neither can the emotional component.  Mental and emotional problems exact an extreme toll on family units and in some cases extended circles of friends. I've personally been a witness to the struggles of two people near and dear to me who suffered from deep chronic depression for a number of years that actually resulted in multiple suicide attempts.

Interpersonal conflicts are often a core problem behind suicidal behaviors and depression (which is the number one contributing factor to suicide if left untreated).

For instance, it is a fact that suicide rates rise as the economy worsens, and in the elderly social isolation is a factor (especially among elderly men who have recently lost their spouse). Situational stress, such as bullying or gender identity issues, is a major risk factor among youth (for instance, LGBT teens (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) are far more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers). And one review of 37 studies from around the world, which explored bullying and suicide risk, concluded that children who are victims, perpetrators, or even witnesses to bullying have an increased risk for suicidal thoughts.7

Below are listed other examples of extremely stressful life situations that may increase the risk of suicide (this is certainly not a comprehensive list):

  • Loss of a significant relationship or death of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of a terminal illness
  • Loss of financial security or livelihood
  • Loss of home or employment
  • Abuse, rape or other serious emotional trauma

If someone close to you has recently endured a hardship, or you have noticed a change in their behavior, how can you tell when ordinary stress or sadness has progressed to a potentially suicidal level? Besides straightforward or "sideways" comments about not wanting to live any longer, some of the red flags that a person has a high risk for self-harm include:

Acquiring a weapon Hoarding medication No plan for the future
Putting affairs in order Making or changing a will Giving away personal belongings
Mending grievances Checking on insurance policies Withdrawing from people


If you think someone is suicidal, do not leave him or her alone. Most suicide attempts are expressions of extreme distress, not harmless bids for attention. A person who appears suicidal needs immediate professional help. Help the person to seek immediate assistance from their doctor or the nearest hospital emergency room, or call 911. Eliminate access to firearms or other potential suicide aids, including unsupervised access to medications.

Long-Term Strategies for Improving Your Mental Health

If you are feeling desperate or have any thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911, or simply go to your nearest Hospital Emergency Department. You can't make long-term plans for lifestyle changes when you are in a crisis!

First let someone help you through the crisis—then you can deal with your depression later, when you're feeling more resourceful. Before I delve into the lifestyle strategies that can support optimal mental and emotional health, please understand that I am not seeking to diminish the impact of mental illness, nor belittle those of you who feel you have been helped by antidepressant drugs.

My intention is to increase your awareness of the risks of these drugs, as well as highlight the fact that they are not usually the best solution. My clinical experience leads me to believe that the only appropriate use of antidepressant drugs is as a last ditch effort when the patient is at a serious risk to themselves or others. The drugs should be continued until the condition is under control and the person is out of harm's way.

This is a very similar strategy to going to the ER and orthopedic surgeon for a cast when you are in an accident and fracture a major bone. You don't use that cast for the rest of your life. You use it until your bone is healed.

The REAL tragedy is that most of the drug companies do NOT view antidepressants this way. There are enormous marketing efforts underway to classify normal behavior as aberrant or diseased, which then requires lifelong therapy with their drug "solution."

That said, my top tips to support positive mental health are as follows:

  • Energy psychology is one of the most powerful tools for resolving emotional issues—specifically a technique called EFT. The effectiveness of any energy psychology technique will be significantly improved if you combine it with the tips that follow.
  • Dramatically decrease your consumption of sugar (particularly fructose), grains, and processed foods. (In addition to being high in sugar and grains, processed foods also contain a variety of additives that can affect your brain function and mental state, especially artificial sweeteners.)
  • Adequate vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can contribute to depression and affects one in four people.
  • Optimize your vitamin D levels, ideally through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D is very important for your mood. One study found that people with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who had normal levels.

    The best way to get vitamin D is through exposure to SUNSHINE, not swallowing a tablet. Remember, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression that we know is related to sunshine deficiency, so it would make sense that the perfect way to optimize your vitamin D is through sun exposure, or a safe tanning bed if you don't have regular access to the sun.

  • Plenty of animal-based omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats are crucial for optimal brain function and mental health, and most people don't get enough from diet alone. So make sure you take a high-quality omega-3 fat, such as krill oil.
  • Evaluate your salt intake. Sodium deficiency actually creates symptoms that are very much like those of depression. Make sure you do NOT use processed salt (regular table salt), however. You'll want to use an all natural, unprocessed salt like Himalayan salt, which contains more than 80 different micronutrients.
  • Adequate daily exercise. Exercise is one of the best-kept secrets to preventing depression.
  • I have been educating the public about the underreported, adverse effects associated with lowering cholesterol through drugs like statins for many years, but what many still do not know is that low cholesterol is linked to dramatically increased rates of suicide and parasuicide, as well as aggression towards others.

This increased expression of violence towards self and others may be due to the fact that low membrane cholesterol decreases the number of serotonin receptors in the brain (which is approximately 30% cholesterol by weight). Lower serum cholesterol concentrations therefore may contribute to decreasing brain serotonin, which not only contributes to suicidal-associated depression, but prevents the suppression of aggressive behavior and violence towards self and others.8 

For Those Currently Struggling With Depression or Suicidal Behaviors (Personally or a Loved One)

I know firsthand that depression and suicide is devastating. It takes a toll on the healthiest of families and can destroy lifelong friendships. Few things are harder in life than losing someone you love, especially to suicide.

It's impossible to impart the will to live to somebody who no longer possesses it. No amount of logic, reasoning, or reminders about all they have to live for will put a smile back on the face of a loved one who is seriously contemplating suicide.

If you are currently the one struggling in a dark place, realize that oftentimes you cannot change your circumstances. You can, however, change your response to them. I encourage you to be balanced in your life. Don't ignore your body's warning signs that something needs to change. Sometimes people are so busy taking care of everybody else that they lose sight of taking care of themselves. There are times when a prescription drug may help restore balance to your body. But it's unclear whether it is the drug providing benefits, or the unbelievable power of your mind that is convinced it is going to work.

Again, if you are feeling desperate or have any thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or call 911, immediately.

For those of you who have been personally affected by suicide, my heart goes out to you.

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