Understanding Suicide Risk: Identification of High Risk Groups during High Risk Times

This article is first seen on National Institutes of Health (NIH)

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The prediction of suicide is a complex and challenging task, involving various factors. To assess suicide risk adequately, it’s essential to consider a combination of personal demographics, psychiatric symptoms, and situational factors.

While psychiatric diagnosis is crucial in understanding suicide risk, not all individuals with psychiatric disorders attempt or complete suicide. Demographic factors and life events also play a role in understanding the context and triggers for suicidal crises. Precipitating events are often identified in suicide cases, emphasizing the importance of evaluating stressful life events to explain the specific timing of a suicidal crisis.

Suicide risk assessment involves exploring social, biological, and psychological factors. Some factors may indicate long-standing risk, while others represent current distress. Therefore, a comprehensive approach is needed to identify individuals currently at risk of suicidal behavior. Many studies focus on suicide attempters rather than suicide completers, making it essential to validate risk factors empirically with samples of individuals who have died by suicide.

This study examines an empirical approach to suicide assessment, considering demographic factors, recent stressful life events, and current psychiatric diagnoses. It builds upon a diathesis-stress model, where demographic factors identify at-risk groups, stressful life events explain the timing of crises, and psychiatric symptoms reveal emotional distress. The combination of these factors helps identify vulnerable individuals for early intervention.

Demographically, unmarried elderly males are often considered at the highest risk of completed suicide. Stressful life events, such as prolonged illness, financial stress, and relationship problems, are common among suicide completers. Psychiatric diagnoses, especially mood disorders like depression, are prevalent among suicide cases. A history of previous suicide attempts can also strongly predict completed suicide.

The study examined suicide risk factors by comparing suicide completers and a control group in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, using various measures and diagnostic procedures. The findings highlighted differences in demographic characteristics between the two groups, emphasizing the importance of understanding these factors in suicide risk assessment.

In this study, psychological autopsy procedures were employed to analyze 148 individuals who completed suicide and compare them to 257 individuals who died suddenly from unrelated causes. The study aimed to identify risk factors associated with suicide completers.

The findings revealed that suicide completers were more likely to be divorced, separated, or widowed, which aligns with existing research showing a strong connection between suicide risk and marital status. The presence of a marital relationship often provides support and intimacy that can act as a protective factor against extreme emotional distress and suicidal tendencies.

Additionally, suicide completers were more likely to be of Caucasian ethnicity. However, the study cautioned against generalizing these results to other regions, as the sample was drawn from the Midwestern United States.

At the time of their death, suicide completers were more likely than the comparison group to meet criteria for a depressive disorder or a substance abuse disorder. This finding supports prior research demonstrating a heightened risk of suicidal ideation and behaviors among individuals with depressive disorders and the influence of alcohol and drug abuse on suicide risk.

Notably, over 95 percent of suicide completers in the study had a psychiatric diagnosis at the time of death, with depressive disorders being the most common. However, the study emphasized that psychiatric diagnosis alone is insufficient to predict suicide completion, and a combination of factors, including demographics, life stressors, and psychiatric diagnoses, is necessary for a comprehensive assessment.

Suicide completers were not significantly more likely than the control group to have psychotic disorders or anxiety disorders. The study suggested that low base rates of psychotic disorders may have influenced these findings. Anxiety disorders were more commonly found among suicide attempters rather than completers.

Interpersonal difficulties in the six months preceding their death were significantly higher among suicide completers compared to the control group. Conflict with close relationships, such as spouses, children, or friends, was common among both groups, but it was more prevalent among suicide completers. This suggests that relationship problems can act as triggers for individuals who are ambivalent about life, pushing them toward suicide.

Surprisingly, suicide completers were not significantly more likely than controls to have experienced physical health problems in the six months before their death. This contrasts with some previous research but may be due to the inclusion of individuals who died suddenly from various causes in the control group. Physical health problems were considered to be potential stressors that could lead to a suicidal crisis.

The study emphasized that combining three domains of assessment—demographics, psychiatric diagnoses, and life stressors—offers a more comprehensive understanding of suicide risk. Demographic factors provide a sociological view, psychiatric diagnoses capture emotional struggles, and stressors may serve as triggers for suicidal actions. Identifying individuals at risk through this multifaceted approach is crucial for suicide prevention efforts.

However, the study acknowledged limitations, such as the retrospective nature of the research and potential biases in informant interviews. Despite these limitations, the study’s concise model for assessing suicide risk, integrating multiple domains, provides valuable insights for mental health professionals and others involved in suicide prevention efforts.

Link to the full article (National Institutes of Health):



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