Suicides Can and Should Be Prevented2023-09-10

Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small.

—Lao Tzu

Suicides are preventable tragedies. In essence they occur when three factors all align: an individual perceives that life is bad (i.e. low life satisfaction), that suicide is ok as a solution, and the means are available. Let’s break down and see how we can counteract these three factors. Even if one of them is countered, suicide is prevented.

The first factor, the perception that life is bad/low life satisfaction, has three components. One, individuals may be anxious and unhappy with their current circumstances, thinking they are damaged beyond redemption. Two, they may be depressed and lack hope, thinking they are a burden with no future. Three, they may lack meaning to their lives, feeling isolated and unimportant, or have quasi-delusional thoughts of guilt or of making other people feel guilty. Anxiety can be treated, and happiness can be improved by helping them practice gratitude for the good things in their life, even if little things. Depression can be treated, and hope can be improved by helping them take positive actions, even if little steps at a time. Delusional thoughts can be treated, and meaning can be improved by connecting with them, making them feel needed and important by getting out of their current self-focus and helping others, even if in small ways. Destructive addictions can be treated.

The second factor, the idea that suicide is ok, that it is a solution to their problems, needs to be countered in two ways. Contrary to popular opinion, I personally think deaths by suicide should not be popularized or described in the media. That normalizes them and gives ideas to the vulnerable. The opposite message needs to be propagated, that suicides are never a solution, that they are destructive not only to self but to loved ones, that there is always another better way to deal with challenges, that help is always available.

The third factor, restricting means, is hard to do, since there are so many different ways in which determined individuals can end their lives, most of them part of our current environment. In individuals who express suicidal ideation and are otherwise identified as very high risk, removing guns and lethal pills, not leaving them alone, and hospitalizing them, are all helpful acutely, giving time to the other two factors to be addressed.

After treating suicidal patients for over 25 years, and conducting research to develop preventive tools, I believe an early and comprehensive bio-psycho-social approach to assessment of risk, treatment and prevention works best. Starting with screening for and mitigating social determinants widely in the population, then psychological risk factors like ideation in at risk individuals, then biological markers, if widely implemented, could be transformative. That is the mission we have at MindX Sciences, to work hard to deploy such understanding and tools as part of regular healthcare, and regular life really. We can all make a difference in somebody’s life.

Live. Happier. Longer.