Close

We use cookies to give you the best possible online experience. If you continue, we'll assume you are happy for your web browser to receive all cookies from our website. See our cookie policy for more information on cookies and how to manage them.

Attempted Suicide and Suicide

An attempt to end one’s life that may have a nonfatal or fatal outcome

  • More young people attempt suicide, but more elderly people die from an attempt
  • More females attempt suicide, but more males die from an attempt
  • Family history of suicide or attempted suicide may increase the risk
  • Social isolation and living in urban areas are risk factors

Most people who attempt suicide are in their teens or are elderly. Among those who attempt suicide, some are certain that they wish to die while others use the attempt to signal their desperation rather than end their lives. More than half of all suicides and suicide attempts involve a drug overdose (see Drug overdose and accidental ingestion), most commonly of a painkiller such as paracetamol.

The suicide rate in the UK is about 17 per 100,000 for men and 5 per 100,000 for women. About 5,370 deaths were attributed to suicide in 2007, but the exact number of suicides is unknown because some are recorded as deaths from other causes. It is estimated that more than 140,000 people each year attempt suicide, and women are about three times more likely than men to make a suicide attempt. However, men are four times more likely to die as a result of a suicide attempt because they use methods, such as hanging, that have a greater potential to kill.

What are the causes?

The majority of suicides in people of all ages are associated with an underlying mental health disorder. About half of all suicide attempts are a consequence of depression or bipolar affective disorder.

Teenage suicide attempts are often impulsive and may follow family quarrels or the breakup of a relationship. These attempts rarely indicate a wish to die, but a fatal dose of tablets may be taken by mistake. Suicide in elderly people is often the result of depression caused by bereavement and loneliness. Incurable physical illnesses lead to an estimated 1 in 5 suicides of people over the age of 65.

Other mental health disorders associated with suicide are schizophrenia, drug dependence, and alcohol dependence.

What might be done?

If suicide has been attempted, admission to hospital is usually necessary for assessment and treatment. In the case of an overdose, as much of the ingested substance as possible is removed from the body to prevent it from being absorbed. If the substance is identifiable, an antidote will be given if there is one available. Any physical effects of an attempted suicide, such as cuts to the wrists, are treated appropriately.

Treatment for underlying psychiatric problems is particularly important to prevent future suicide attempts. Drugs such as antidepressants may be prescribed, and a form of psychotherapy or counselling (see Psychological therapies) may be recommended. Any problems that may have precipitated the suicide attempt will be identified and, if possible, help offered to resolve them. After a first attempt, there is an increased risk of future ones.

Can it be prevented?

Some people talk about their wish to kill themselves before they attempt suicide, and these threats should be taken seriously. Family and friends should try to remove any available means and seek professional help urgently. If there is a high risk of suicide, it may be necessary to admit the person to hospital, with, or possibly without, his or her consent.

After a suicide attempt, treatment for any underlying mental health problems and family support and vigilance may prevent further attempts. However, a person who has a strong desire to die may try to prevent discovery during an attempt and is more likely to choose a method that will prove fatal.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

Back to top

Search the
Medical Encyclopedia

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.