What many people get wrong about suicide

Most suicides are impulsive, but a lot of long-term factors can contribute to the trigger event.

What many people get wrong about suicide
Updated by German Lopez on September 17, 2015, 1:23 p.m. ET

Why do people kill themselves? It’s a question at the heart of suicide prevention: If we know the circumstances surrounding the act, we can better know how to stop it.

One myth, for example, is that suicide isn’t impulsive, and people will simply resort to other methods if some lethal means — like guns — aren’t available to them.

But Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told me years of research show that suicides tend to be fairly impulsive acts during short-term crises, and they can be caused by multiple factors that sometimes may not be perfectly clear to the public or even friends and family.

One of the key factors, Harkavy-Friedman said, is access to lethal means, such as guns. Citing research from Israel, she argued that people considering suicide are often in a fairly stubborn, albeit temporarily so, mindset. So if the method of suicide they want to use isn’t available, they might give up on the act altogether — and survive. That helps explain why, for example, access to guns closely correlates with the number of suicides.

“Time is really key to preventing suicide in a suicidal person,” she said. “First, the crisis won’t last, so it will seem less dire and less hopeless with time. Second, it opens the opportunity for someone to help or for the suicidal person to reach out to someone to help. That’s why limiting access to lethal means is so powerful.”


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