Risk factors that contribute to suicide attempts and suicide completion cover a broad range of domains. Substantial research has shown that individuals who have psychological problems are at increased risk for suicide ideation and completion. But other influences, such as interpersonal conflicts, marital status, and other conditions have not been fully explored with relation to suicide. To fill this clinical void, James C. Overholser, of Case Western Reserve University, recently led a study that compared several factors leading up to the nonsuicidal deaths of 257 individuals and suicidal deaths 148 people. Using data gathered from psychological autopsies, Overholser examined factors that are known to increase the risk of suicide, such as stressful circumstances, death of a loved one, and divorce. He also considered the marital status and psychological health of the individuals in an attempt to provide evidence that might help clinicians prevent suicide attempts in those most at risk.
The results of his study showed that those who died by suicide were more likely to be single, either through divorce, death, or separation, than those who died by nonsuicide. This finding supports existing research that shows how close, intimate relationships provide protective factors that help individuals with psychological and physical challenges. Overholser also discovered that there were more Caucasian suicide completers than nonsuicide deceased. The most significant finding revealed that completers had higher rates of psychological illness (95%) when compared to the nonsuicide group. The most common mental health issue was some form of depression, which was found in over 60% of completers.
Overholser also found that many of the suicide completers had significant life stressors, such as divorce, job loss, or poor health that could have contributed to their depression and made them more vulnerable to suicide. The completers did not have elevated levels of anxiety, which has been shown to be a risk factor for suicide attempters. The study revealed relatively low levels of anxiety issues in completers, including panic disorder, posttraumatic stress (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and generalized anxiety. Overholser concluded, “Proper assessment of suicide risk should include a comprehensive evaluation of demographic characteristics, recent life stressors, and psychiatric diagnosis.”
Overholser, J. C., Braden, A., Dieter, L. Understanding suicide risk: Identification of high-risk groups during high-risk times. Journal of Clinical Psychology 68.3 (2012): 349-361.
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