Why Are Some People More Vulnerable to Suicide?

Suicide Risk

If I get through the day and don’t take my life then that is a victory. If I don’t go buy that gun, if I don’t use that knife, if I don’t jerk that steering wheel into oncoming traffic, if I don’t hang myself, if I don’t put that hose in my car’s tailpipe, if I don’t go into the garage and start the car, if I don’t jump off that cliff or overpass, if I don’t swallow all those pills, then that is a victory.

These are the words of Zane, a social worker and a counseling patient who managed to survive decades of suicidal ideation. In The Suicide Solution, which is being released Sept. 14, 2021, during National Suicide Prevention Month, authors Daniel Emina, MD, (Amen Clinics psychiatrist) and Rick Lawrence (award-winning author and minister) chronicle Zane’s—and many other people’s—journey out of the valley of the shadow of death. In this excerpt from the book, the authors delve into what makes some people more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

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Like more than 16 million adults in the U.S. today, Zane has wrestled with the impact of a major depressive episode in his life. For many, that “episode” is really more like their new normal. Suicidal ideation is embedded in their emotional weather pattern, lingering like a winter storm on the horizon. And the number of people worldwide who succumb to this darkness is staggering—more than one million end their own lives every year, according to the World Health Organization.

For many, a major depressive “episode” is really more like their new normal. Suicidal ideation is embedded in their emotional weather pattern, lingering like a winter storm on the horizon. Click To Tweet

Down through history, that cascading number includes many well-known cultural influencers, from Marc Antony (Roman general and politician) to Anthony Bourdain (host of Parts Unknown) to Fidel Castro Diaz-Balart (son of Fidel Castro) to Kurt Cobain (lead singer/songwriter for Nirvana) to George Eastman (inventor and philanthropist) to Margot Kidder (actress, Lois Lane in Superman) to Richard Manuel (lead singer of The Band) to Freddie Prinze (actor and star of Chico and the Man) to Anne Sexton (poet) to Kate Spade (fashion designer) to Alan Turing (mathematician and World War II codebreaker) to Vincent van Gogh (artist) to Robin Williams (actor and stand-up comedian).

It’s an endless, heartbreaking funeral procession.

So, why do some of us remain stuck [in patterns of destructive thinking] while others seem to bounce through the potholes and keep on going in life? What makes some people more vulnerable to the pull of suicide than others? In the famous first line of his classic novel Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Translated into this context, every healthy brain is alike in its “wholeness,” but every stuck brain is stuck in its own way.

4 Factors That Increase Suicide Risk

These are the factors that catalyze a descent into the darkness:

1. The brain’s “self-preservation” mechanisms experience a breakdown.

Our brains are hard-wired to help us survive. When internal and external stressors overwhelm these “fail-safe” mechanisms, our natural protections stop working properly. The anxiety we experience in the course of everyday life is deeply linked to our fundamental determination to preserve ourselves. Anxiety is a normal emotion—it’s the brain’s alarm system, letting us know when something is wrong so we can start the process of fixing the problem. But when our response to the alarm is dysfunctional, or our alarm system itself doesn’t work the way it’s designed to work, our self-preservation safeguards fail us.

2. Bugs in the brain’s software (or our psychology) create “cognitive distortions” that lead to hopelessness, negative self-evaluations, and dire predictions for the future.

  • These cognitive distortions undermine our social behavioral skills
  • radically diminishing our problem-solving ability,
  • tempting us to avoid solving problems in the first place,
  • keeping us stuck in existing ways of thinking (“cognitive rigidity”), and
  • limiting our “menu” of healthy coping mechanisms.

3. Bugs in the brain’s hardware (or biology) create “broken links” in the areas tasked with managing our emotions and impulse regulation.

A team of psychiatrists set out to identify “brain alterations that contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors,” poring over the data from more than a hundred imaging studies over the course of two decades. They published their findings in the journal Molecular Psychiatry. They discovered a pattern of broken links in the brains of suicidal patients—a “dysregulation” of the specific brain regions and circuits that are supposed to maintain a stable emotional response to stressors.

4. Individual and environmental variables can increase the risk of suicide, especially when they’re mixed into a “cocktail” of circumstances.

When both personal and circumstantial variables pile on top of each other, it can create a “perfect storm” that overwhelms a person’s normal defenses.

In spite of these factors, it is still possible to find a way out of the darkness and into the light.

The Suicide Solution by Daniel Emina, MD, and Rick Lawrence offers hope and a practical toolbox for people who are struggling to find their way out of a cave of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts—and for anyone who cares for someone who’s been lost in that cave. Informed by the clinical realities of anxiety, depression, and suicide, the authors draw from the transformational relational strategies of Jesus to chart a path into life and freedom.

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