Last updated: Mar 03, 2010
The symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder are the main factors that drive people to consider harming themselves. Depression is a chronic condition and it tends to recur, especially if its not treated or is only partially treated. Sometimes the people who live with a depressed person are better at spotting the signs of a relapse sooner than the person himself. Increasing isolation is often a symptom of depression, as is sadness, expressions of worthlessness, and sleeping or eating too much or too little.
“Depression is the leading illness for suicide, so the deeper the depression gets or the longer it goes on, the more discouraged the person experiencing it feels,” says Paula Clayton, MD, the medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “If you have a brief depression, say three or four months, and then get over it, I doubt youre as vulnerable as someone who has depression that lasts one or two years and despite all treatments doesnt get better.”
Signs of anxiety or agitation
Suicide is associated not just with depressive symptoms, but even more so with the anxiety and agitation that often accompany depression. According to Ken Robbins, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, about half of the people who are diagnosed with depression experience “melancholic depression,” which features the classic symptoms associated with the disorder: listlessness, fatigue, loss of appetite, a desire to be alone.
Madelyn Gould, PhD, a professor of clinical epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City, says that excessive and inappropriate feelings of guilta common symptom of depression and anxietyare something to be on the lookout for as well.
Drug use and excessive alcohol usewhich some agitated and anxious people turn to for reliefare warning signs for suicide, says Dr. Clayton. “You might not be an alcoholic or a drug abuser, but if you take things to make yourself feel better or to numb you, that makes you more vulnerable because it impairs your judgment and makes your thinking not as clear,” she says.
Purchasing a gun
One of the loudest and clearest warning signs is buying a gun. Access to a firearm in the home significantly increases the risk of a suicideby up to 10 times, according to a 2008 article in the New England Journal of Medicine. Guns account for less than 10% of all suicide attempts, but those involving guns are far more likely to be fatal.
Signs that someone is considering suicide may also show up on a computer. For instance, a Web-browser history may show that a person has been researching suicide and ways to kill him or herself, Dr. Clayton says. “With a teen, especially, parents should be monitoring Facebook or MySpace,” she adds.