Suicidal? Let’s Talk About It

Far from encouraging suicide, psychosocial talk therapy (a.k.a. individual counseling) that focuses on the suicidal thoughts can be a life saver. Findings by a recent study conducted by Johns Hopkins University researchers confirm that there is a 26% lower risk of repeated deliberate suicide attempts and death in individuals who received psychosocial therapy following a suicide attempt. This is true in spite of the well-known fact that deliberate self-harm is a strong predictor of suicide. The aim of this study was to examine whether psychosocial therapy after self-harm was linked to lower risks of repeated self-harm, suicide, and death from suicide.

The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, consisted of a matched cohort study of 5,678 individuals who, after deliberate self-harm, received a psychosocial therapy intervention (counseling) at suicide prevention clinics in Denmark during 1992—2010. The outcomes were compared with 17,034 people who did not receive no counseling after deliberate self-harm. The researchers sought evidence of repeated self-harm, death by suicide, and death by any cause and calculated odds ratios for 1, 5, 10, and 20 years of follow-up.

During the 20 year follow-up, 937 (16·5%) recipients of psychosocial therapy attempted suicide again, and 391 (6·9%) died, of which 93 (16%) by suicide. The psychosocial therapy intervention was linked to lower risks of self-harm (as compared to no psychosocial therapy) and death by any cause within a year. Long-term effects indicated that 145 suicide attempts and 153 deaths, including 30 deaths by suicide, were prevented by counseling.

The significance of this study, and the importance of counseling immediately following or to prevent a suicide attempt, cannot be overstated since suicide is among the top 10 cause of death in the United States. Over one million Americans try to take their lives each year, and over 40,000 succeed in their attempt. Over twenty-five percent of these suicide attempts could be prevented by timely, focused psychotherapy.  According to recent youth suicide statistics,

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (Source: 2010 CDC WISQARS)
  • Suicide is the THIRD leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (Source: 2010 CDC WISQARS)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
  • Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs

Among adults, the highest suicide rate is among men over 85 years old: 65 per 100,000 persons. According to the CDC, from 1999 to 2010, the age-adjusted suicide rate for adults aged 35–64 years in the United States increased significantly by 28.4%, from 13.7 per 100,000 population to 17.6 (p<0.001). The suicide rate for men aged 35–64 years increased 27.3%, from 21.5 to 27.3, and the rate for women increased 31.5%, from 6.2 to 8.1. Among men, the greatest increases were among those aged 50–54 years and 55–59 years, (49.4%, from 20.6 to 30.7, and 47.8%, from 20.3 to 30.0, respectively). Among women, suicide rates increased with age, and the largest percentage increase in suicide rate was observed among women aged 60–64 years (59.7%, from 4.4 to 7.0).

Lead researcher, Annette Erlangsen of the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins, pointed out that people that have attempted suicide but failed are at an especially high risk. “We know that people who have attempted suicide are a high-risk population and that we need to help them,” she says. “However, we did not know what would be effective in terms of treatment.” Dr. Erlangsen commented on the findings. “Now we have evidence that psychosocial treatment – which provides support, not medication – is able to prevent suicide in a group at high risk of dying by suicide… Our findings provide a solid basis for recommending that this type of therapy be considered for populations at risk for suicide.”