Why Do People Die by Suicide?

Every 11 minutes, someone dies by suicide. Learn about who is at risk for suicidal ideation, why someone may want to end their life, and what you can do to help.

man sitting with friend and consoling him
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Suicide is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in the United States, with one person taking their life every 11 minutes.¹ Suicidal ideation, or the experience of having suicidal thoughts and urges, is even more common. While tens of thousands of people die by suicide every year, it's estimated that millions of people consider suicide, plan a suicide attempt, or attempt suicide and survive.

Understanding why people die by suicide or experience suicidal thoughts is complicated. While understanding the "why" is only one part of suicide prevention, it can help us act more compassionately toward those who experience suicidal thoughts, give comfort to those who have lost someone to suicide, and better understand the pain of people who experience suicidality.

Why We Don't Say 'Commit' Suicide

The language we use when we talk about suicide matters. For example, despite its common usage, experts now advise against using the phrase "committed suicide." Instead, we should use the more neutral phrases, "died by suicide" or "take their own life."8 Saying someone "committed" suicide stigmatizes the act of dying by suicide and makes it sound as if someone committed a crime.

Similarly, it's important to avoid framing someone's suicide attempt as "successful" or "unsuccessful." Surviving a suicide attempt is not a failure and dying by suicide is not a success. Instead, you can simply state if the person died or survived after a suicide attempt.

When talking about someone's suicide, it is also recommended to avoid sharing details about the suicide method, such as how the person died. Knowing where or how a suicide happened can contribute to suicide contagion, a phenomenon where one suicide death leads to many more.

What Puts Someone At Risk for Suicide?

Part of what makes suicide so complicated is that no sole factor can predict with high accuracy who will actually die by suicide. 2 However, recognizing possible signs of suicidal thoughts and screening people for suicidal ideation can help us better understand the risk.

It is important to know that dying by suicide is not caused by weakness, a personality flaw, or selfishness. These are stigmatized explanations of why suicide happens and can discourage people experiencing suicidal thoughts from asking for help.

Instead, those who die by suicide were likely exposed to biological, environmental, and social risk factors that made them vulnerable to suicidal thoughts. Some risk factors may include:2

  • Having a family member die by suicide
  • Easy access to materials and methods that can kill you
  • Stigma around mental health and reaching out for support

There is so much more we need to learn about suicide and how to prevent suicide deaths. As new research comes out, additional risk factors may also be added.

Reasons People Die by Suicide

We often can't exactly determine what led to a suicide death. But, some people who have attempted suicide or have had suicidal thoughts can help us understand why they wanted to end their life. Here is what we know.

Mental Illness

Having a mental illness can increase the risk of dying by suicide, but the relationship between the two isn't always that simple. To understand the connection between mental illness and suicide, it can be helpful to look at how mental illness affects someone's quality of life. Some ways that mental illness can contribute to suicide include:4,5

  • Unequal access to mental health care and treatment
  • Lack of social support or feeling like you don't have anybody to go to
  • Feeling isolated, lonely, or misunderstood
  • Difficulty maintaining relationships
  • Decreased quality of life due to increased stress, (e.g., being unable to maintain a job)
  • Increased impulsivity, which may occur in those with borderline personality disorder

Some mental health conditions, like depression and substance use disorder, are most commonly associated with suicide. However, other conditions like anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and personality disorders may also increase suicide risk.3

History of Trauma

Experiencing trauma can significantly affect you at any age. However, childhood trauma is one of the more significant long-term risk factors for suicide.2 Some examples of childhood trauma include emotional neglect, physical abuse, losing a parent, sexual assault, and bullying. Unfortunately, these risk factors are accumulative, meaning the more traumatic life events you experience, the higher your risk of attempting suicide.

Trauma can impact us long into our adult years, causing challenges like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, low self-esteem, shame, isolation, and attachment issues that can make it hard to maintain relationships.

Circumstantial Challenges

Challenging real-life stressors can lead to suicidal thoughts and increase someone's chances of dying by suicide.2,4 This can especially be true if someone lacks the skills or social support to cope with stress. Examples of challenging situations that can put someone at risk for suicide include:

  • Facing legal challenges
  • Losing a job
  • Overwhelming financial troubles
  • Going through a break-up or losing a significant relationship
  • Death of a loved one death

Feelings of Hopelessness

Generally, people who are suicidal feel hopeless and pessimistic about their future. While it's typical to experience an occasional feeling of hopelessness, people at risk for suicide are more likely to experience rumination—meaning they may get stuck on repetitive, negative feelings or have recurring thoughts about death.2

Feeling like you're a burden to the people in your life or like you don't belong anywhere in the world are two other powerful emotions associated with suicide.6

Identity

Gender, race, sexual orientation, and age all impact suicide risk. While women attempt suicide more often than men, men die by suicide at higher rates.2 Across all genders, most suicides occur between the ages of 35 and 44, although age-related risks differ across ethnicity. For example, Black and Latino populations are more likely to die by suicide at earlier ages than their white counterparts.

Certain marginalized communities, like people in the LGBTQIA community, have a higher risk for suicide. Studies show that up to 43% of transgender people have reported attempting suicide.2 It's important to note that being transgender is not a suicide risk factor. Trans people often experience discrimination, bullying, and stigma—all of which can increase suicide risk.

People with disabilities are at-risk for suicide as well. One survey found people with disabilities are three times more likely to report suicidal ideation compared to people without disabilities.7

Veterans, people who live in rural areas, and Indigenous communities are also disproportionately impacted by suicide.7 Suicide does not discriminate when it comes to identity, but the trauma exposure, stress, discrimination, and societal challenges that certain groups face may put them more at risk.

How to Help Someone Who May Be Suicidal

If someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts or urges, there are some things you can do.

Don't Panic

Suicidal thoughts can exist on a spectrum. Having a loved one open up about their suicidal thoughts doesn't always mean they are in immediate danger. Ask if they have a suicide plan or access to items they may use to harm themselves. This information can help you understand their level of risk. Remember: Asking someone about their suicidal thoughts will not increase their risk of suicide, so don't be afraid to ask directly.

Listen to Them

Simply sitting with someone in their pain can be powerful. You likely won't be able to solve all the factors contributing to their suicidal thoughts in one conversation, but don't dismiss the power of listening. Oftentimes, feeling connected to someone or something can temporarily heal feelings of hopelessness and disconnect caused by suicidal thoughts.

Remove Any Lethal Means From the Home

If you live in the same space as someone experiencing suicidal thoughts, consider removing or securing any dangerous items in your home. This could look like locking up a gun or removing sharp objects from the kitchen.

Encourage Them to Access Crisis Resources

If someone you love is feeling suicidal, you can encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988, or text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line. Through these resources, they can chat with a trained crisis counselor who can help you and your loved one figure out the appropriate next step. You can also call these crisis resources yourself if you're concerned about your loved one's safety.

Here are additional resources that can help you support a loved one:

Local resources may also be available. Resources differ based on your home city or state. You may also consider searching online for local resources that can support you or your loved one.

Summary

Suicide is a public health issue that affects millions of people, yet so many conversations about suicide are riddled with misunderstanding and shame. There is still so much to learn about why people die by suicide and how we can prevent suicides from occurring. Suicide is complicated and is often due to many factors working together. Living with a mental illness, a history of trauma, and life challenges can all make someone more likely to die by suicide. Fortunately, there are some ways you can support someone who is suicidal, including listening to them, removing dangerous items, and helping them access crisis resources.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, there's help available. Call 911 for emergency services or reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Line at 988 for support with mental health crises.

Sources:

1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Facts About Suicide.

2. Fehling KB, Selby EA. Suicide in DSM-5: Current Evidence for the Proposed Suicide Behavior Disorder and Other Possible Improvements. Front Psychiatry. 2021 Feb 4;11:499980. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.499980. PMID: 33613330; PMCID: PMC7891495.

3. Brådvik L. Suicide Risk and Mental Disorders. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2018;15(9):2028. Published 2018 Sep 17. doi:10.3390/ijerph15092028

4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Risk and Protective Factors.

5. McGirr A, et al. Risk factors for suicide completion in borderline personality disorder: a case-control study of cluster B comorbidity and impulsive aggression. J Clin Psychiatry. 2007 May;68(5):721-9. doi: 10.4088/jcp.v68n0509. PMID: 17503981.

6. American Psychological Association. The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status.

7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Disparities in Suicide.

8. Reporting on Suicide. Best Practices and Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.

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