Many people assume that failed suicide attempts are cries for help. While it may be true that suicide attempts are attempts to get help with depression or other issues, this knowledge does little to help prevent suicide.
Viewing failed suicide attempts as simply pleas for help can be very dangerous and makes it easy to underestimate the seriousness of a suicide attempt. Interpreting suicidal behavior in this manner suggests a life-threatening scenario is just “drama,” or “acting out,” and that the suicidal person doesn’t seriously mean to end his life. However, any suicidal behavior needs to be taken very seriously.
Suicide Attempt Myths
Some people mistakenly believe that the life-ending methods employed in suicide attempts indicate how serious the individual is about ending her life. For example, some may perceive medication overdose suicide attempts as less serious than attempts that employ firearms, as the mortality rate for overdose suicide attempts is lower. Because overdose is a less effective method of suicide, people may think the person is seeking help rather than trying to end her life.
However, just because a person unsuccessfully attempts suicide does not mean he isn’t serious about ending his life. According to the National Institutes of Health, one-third of people who attempt suicide will repeat the act within a year, and 10 percent will ultimately succeed in their attempt to commit suicide.
A suicide attempt may be carefully planned, or it may be an impulsive act, but all suicide attempts are serious and should not be categorized by degrees of perceived severity.
Failed Suicide Attempts: Cries for Help?
Research indicates that suicide attempts are not always cries for help, as people who survive failed suicides may not seek treatment after the event. Instead, suicide attempts may be desperate attempts to control symptoms of depression or mental illness.
Some evidence goes even further, suggesting that suicide has its origins in power and self-control. At the 2003 Depression on College Campuses conference, Dr. Paul Joffe noted that college students who attempt suicide often refuse to seek assistance. He speculates that students use suicidal behavior as a means of controlling their lives.
Dr. Joffe’s suggestion flies in the face of conventional beliefs of suicide attempts as cries for help, but his suicide prevention program at the University of Illinois is very successful.
Students at the University are required to attend mandatory therapy after suicide attempts or face withdrawal from the University. While it may seem harsh to respond to suicide attempts with threats of college withdrawal, the suicide rate at the University has dropped from 2.3 deaths per year to 1.05 per year under Dr. Joffe’s system, while counseling use among students who have attempted suicide has jumped from 5 percent to 90 percent.
Help Prevent Suicide
Whether suicide attempts are cries for help or dysfunctional attempts to regain control over life is less important than the potential outcome, a “successful” suicide. People can help prevent suicide by learning to identify the symptoms of depression and suicidal behavior. Calling 911 if someone appears suicidal is a legitimate use of emergency services.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Staff. (2006). Understanding suicidal thinking. Retrieved May 15, 2010, from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance website: www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=about_publications_suicideprev.
Marano, H. (2004). Not always a cry for help. Retrieved May 15, 2010, from the Psychology Today website: www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200305/not-always-cry-help.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (2006). After an attempt: A guide for taking care of yourself after your treatment in the emergency department. Retrieved May 15, 2010, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website: download.ncadi.samhsa.gov/ken/pdf/SVP-0157/SVP-0157.pdf.
National Library of Medicine Staff. (2010). Suicide and suicidal behavior. Retrieved May 18, 2010, from the MedlinePlus website: www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/001554.htm.