Having a friend or family member commit suicide can be one of the most heart wrenching experiences of our lives. While suicide is a serious problem, it is usually impossible to know whether a person is suicidal or not. All that is about to change.
The astonishing accuracy of a new test designed by a German and Swedish team is poised to revolutionize suicide prevention around the globe. The test involves the analyzation of blood pressure, blood circulation, and sweat gland activity in depressed patients. The study was published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research and so far the method used has achieved a success rate of 97% in recognizing whether a person is likely to commit suicide or not. Lars-Håkan Thorell is an associate professor in experimental psychiatry at Linköping University, and one of the researchers behind the study. Even he was surprised by the results.
The results are so strong that I’m astonished.
783 depressed in-patients in Germany were tested for hyporeactivity, which is a reduction in reactions to various stimuli. The study found that 97 percent of depressed patients who later committed suicide were hyporeactive. It should be noted however that hyporeactivity can be present in people that are not depressed. Thorell explains that,
Everyone who has it is not suicidal – but almost all suicidal, depressed patients have it.
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Bipolar patients showed the greatest amount of hyporeactivity compared to all other types of mental illness. Additionally, Thorell points out that those with recurrent depression are at a higher risk of becoming hyporeactive, likely because,
certain nerve cells in the hippocampus are damaged by depressions and negative stress.
To know if a person might commit suicide and is in fact exhibiting hyporeactivity the team played a pattern of tones while examining the body’s reaction to the sounds. A sensor is placed on the finger which analyzes blood pressure, blood circulation, and sweat gland activity. As the tones continue to be played the body of a person with hyporeactivity quickly stops reacting. That is all it takes to know if a person is considering suicide or not. Thorell sums up the difference between normal reactivity and hyporeactivity, stating that,
A depressed person has a biological inability to care about the surroundings, while a healthy person continues to react.
Thorell plans to conduct this study in 15 other countries in a continued effort to understand and prevent suicide. This could not have come at a better time since global suicide rates have increased by 60% in the last 45 years. According to the World Health Organization nearly 1 million people die every year from suicide. This equates to a death every 40 seconds. Keep in mind that these statistics don’t take into account unsuccessful attempts, which according to the WHO may account for 10, 20, or even 30 times more than the stated numbers.
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Suicide is currently the leading cause of injury mortality in the United States with more people killing themselves than dying from car accidents. Despite this, the suicide rate in the United States doesn’t even come close to that of other countries. Suicide rates are soaring all around the globe. Interestingly, Greenland has the highest rate, with nearly 25% of the population claiming to have attempted suicide. By the way, Greenland only has a population of 56,000, so the potential loss of 25% of its population would be devastating. After Greenland the countries with the highest suicide rates are Lithuania and South Korea.
As long as suicidal intention is recognized in a person it can usually be prevented with professional help. Although getting help can make a difference, most people are not receiving the aid they need. WHO points out the major obstacle of suicide prevention, explaining that,
Worldwide, the prevention of suicide has not been adequately addressed due to basically a lack of awareness of suicide as a major problem and the taboo in many societies to discuss openly about it. In fact, only a few countries have included prevention of suicide among their priorities.
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If you think someone is suicidal, don’t keep it a secret. I am a strong proponent for the right to die, but a mentally ill person is a sick person – they should be allowed to make the choice with a clear head, not a clouded mind or hopeless outlook. Suicide Awareness Voice of Education (SAVE) explains that the first step to take if you think a person is suicidal is to start a dialogue.
Suicidal thoughts are common with some mental illnesses and your willingness to talk about it in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way can be the help a person needs to seeking professional help. Questions okay to ask:
“Do you ever feel so badly that you think about suicide?”
“Do you have a plan to commit suicide or take your life?”
“Have you thought about when you would do it (today, tomorrow, next week)?”
“Have you thought about what method you would use?”
This allows you to gauge how serious a person is about suicide. Your next step should either be calling 911 (if it is very serious), or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. This is a service available to suicidal people as well as friends and family.
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The other recommended tips include recognizing and accepting a person’s problems. Don’t try to convince them that their problems are irrelevant, as this usually intensifies the desire to commit suicide. Simply reassure them that the state they’re in is temporary, that life can always get better, and that help is available at all hours of the day. Finally, if a person is in immediate danger, offer to help them. Follow through with your offer and aid them in finding a mental health professional. You can even make the call with them. As SAVE poignantly reminds us,
If you’re in a position to help, don’t assume that your persistence is unwanted or intrusive. Risking your feelings to help save a life is a risk worth taking.
Remember, always take a conversation about suicide seriously. It could be the last conversation a person has.
Leading Cause of Injury Mortality in the United States