In addition to the warning signs listed in our chapter on suicide prevention, there are a number of risk factors that can predispose a child towards suicide and make it more likely that they’ll take their own life:
Personality traits that make a child more susceptible to suicide
- Being highly sensitive
- Having a borderline personality disorder diagnosis
- Scoring lower on intelligence tests
- Having an LGBT orientation (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender)
Several personality or character traits can increase a person’s propensity for suicide. Impulsive – a trait measured on psychological tests which tends to characterize men more than it does women – can exacerbate the suicide problem. (Springen, 2010) Other inquiries have found that having a lower intelligence raises the odds that a person will commit suicide. (Deary, Weiss & Batty, 2011) Yet it’s also true that a number of people who commit suicide are highly intelligent.
One of the most powerful personality traits associated with suicide is high sensitivity. It’s estimated that around 20% of the population can be classified as highly sensitive, which means that not only do they react to social hurts in a more personal way, but they are often more attuned to and bothered by the suffering of others. Therefore highly sensitive people can find themselves more preoccupied with the problems in the world, which can fuel a state of despair.
Borderline personality disorder (BPD), a condition based on hypersensitivity in which people are quick to overreact to the slightest injuries (think about it as someone with skin so thin that they writhe in pain over the slightest touch), is a condition frequently associated with suicide. It’s estimated that as many as 1 in 10 patients diagnosed with BPD will eventually kill themselves.
Another major suicide risk is sexual identity issues. Gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender citizens all have much higher suicide rates than the general public, and sexual identity issues are by far the leading contributor to suicides among teens and youth.
Finally, the degree of deterrents holding a person back impacts their risk for suicide. These can be things like family connections, religious beliefs, ideas about death, and so on. A person with few social connections and the belief that a better world awaits after death has much less of a hurdle to overcome than an atheist who expects nothing afterwards and claims to a few important connections.
Behaviors that put children at risk for suicide
- Intravenous drug use
- Non-suicidal self-injury or cutting
- A history of anorexia or other eating disorders
- Drug or alcohol use/abuse
- A history of combat or violence
- Viewing violent media
There are a number of behaviors which can prime a person towards suicidal tendencies. “Past experience of any sort that will get you used to pain or injury or death has the potential to make you more and more fearless,” says psychologist Thomas E. Joiner, author of Why People Die By Suicide. (Springen, 2010) In a paper on the subject, he and colleagues write that “engaging in painful and provocative experiences, including past suicide attempts, increases an individual’s acquired capability for self-harm.” (Van Orden et al., 2008) Therefore things like cutting or eating disorders, which desensitize a person towards physical discomfort, can increase a person’s propensity toward suicide. Cutting can also increase the risk because some cutters push the envelope too far, and may underestimate the risk of death.
Any type of drug or alcohol abuse raises the risk of suicide several times over. This is because alcohol and drugs of all types increase impulsiveness and also mess with the brain’s emotional regulation system. So a person tends to develop more interpersonal and emotional problems, and regular drug or alcohol use not only provides plenty of opportunities where impulse control is low, but it numbs them as to the act and consequences of suicide. “They use alcohol as the lubricant that allows them to take action,” says Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden, a nonprofit addiction treatment program. (Springen, 2010)
Environmental risk factors for suicide
- Dysfunctional family settings
- A history of physical abuse, emotional abuse, or violent sexual abuse
- Having a close friend or relative who has committed suicide
- Media exposure to a suicide in the community
- Exposure to death
- Access to a firearm
There are several factors in the environment that can increase the risk that a person will commit suicide. One of the most powerful is exposure to other suicides. Slaby & Garfinkel (1994, p. 148) write that “a common finding is that the individual who committed suicide knew someone else who had suffered self-inflicted death: A relative, a friend, or perhaps only someone whose story was told in the media.”
Other environmental factors such as access to a firearm, a history of being the recipient of violence, dysfunction in the home or exposure to death and dying can also influence a person’s risk for suicide.
The psychology of children at risk for suicide
- Feelings of helplessness
- Repeatedly thinking about death
- Holding unrealistic standards about life
- Rigid and inflexible thinking
How Genes in the family can put children at risk for suicide
- Family history of depression
- Growing up with highly critical parents
- A history of suicide in the family
- Being of Caucasian race
- Premature birth and/or other fetal development issues
Suicides seem to run in families, which has led some researchers to look for a potential genetic link. For example, researchers have found that serotonin, a chemical neurotransmitter in the brain, may play a part in suicides. People who commit suicide are thought to have dampened serotonin signaling, and some research has found higher rates of abnormalities in serotonin signaling genes among those who kill themselves. (Sanders, 2012) But it’s difficult to tell whether this increase in suicide risk among certain families or lineages is truly genetic or the result of environmental and/or behavioral factors that are passed down through the generations.
If a genetic link exists, it is complicated. There is no single “suicide gene” or simple genetic explanation for such behavior. Anytime you hear a gene reported as a “suicide gene” or an “autism” gene or any other gene, you are being given grossly simplified information. Even when researchers do find an association between a particular gene and a disorder, it typically only explains 5% or 10% of the variance at most, and even in these instances, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation.
That said, we do know that for whatever reason, suicide risk is elevated in families with a history of addiction, depression, or prior suicides; factors which often coincide to one another. Suicide is also more prevalent among whites than African Americans. Family environment and parenting can also play a role. For example, having highly critical parents can often predispose one towards suicide, because this creates high levels of self blame and self-criticism that are the fuel behind self-destructive actions.
Developmental issues in the earliest stages of life can also increase a person’s risk of suicide. For example, it’s been found that baby boys born prematurely are 4-times more likely to attempt suicide later in life than those born at full term, possibly due to reduced serotonin activity in the brain. (Wenner, 2009B)
Protective factors against suicide
On the opposite end, several factors have been identified as things that reduce the risk of a person committing suicide:
- An intact marriage or other social supports
- Active faith or religious affiliation
- The presence of young dependent children at home
- Supportive relationship with a caregiver
- The absence of substance abuse or depression
- Living in an area with close access to medical and mental health resources
- The awareness that suicide is the product of mental illness
- Proven problem solving and effective coping skills
So what is going on in the psychology of someone who commits suicide? Studies using psychological scales that evaluate the different dimensions of depression reveal that (unsurprisingly), those individuals most likely to die by suicide are those who score high on the hopelessness scale. (Beck, 1986) The more hopeless a person feels, the fewer options they perceive for ending the unhappiness.
Other research has shown that people who score high in negative emotions such as anxiety, anger, fear and stress were even more likely to try to kill themselves than people who scored high in impulsivity. (Springen, 2010) Having unrealistic standards about life or being brought up in a rigid and inflexible belief system not only feed into these negative emotions, but they prevent a person from seeing their situation in a less-judgmental way, which makes them more likely to commit suicide.
Repeated exposure to the idea of taking your own life makes one grow more comfortable with the thought, thus increasing suicide risk. Which is why it’s important for friends and family to intervene as soon as possible once they become aware that a loved one may be having such thoughts. The more time they spend priming themselves to the idea of taking their own life, the more likely it is to occur. It’s sort of like football players who jump up and down and hit each other to get psyched up for the big game. Someone who is suicidal may spend a lot of time imagining their demise in order to build up the strength to actually do it.