Suicidal Thoughts & Behavior

Unlike traditional psychiatry, which rarely looks at the brain, Amen Clinics uses brain imaging technology to help identify underlying brain dysfunction that may contribute to suicidal tendencies.

What are Suicidal Thoughts and Behavior?

Everybody struggles in life. It’s normal to feel sadness, despair, anxiety, and stress from time to time. But for some people, feelings of deep depression, paralyzing anxiety, or overwhelm become the constant backdrop to your life. You may start thinking your situation is hopeless and there is no way out. The downward spiral may eventually lead to thoughts of suicide or suicidal behavior, which includes talking about suicide or taking action to end one’s life. If you or a loved one has experienced suicidal thoughts or behavior, there’s one very important thing you need to know. For every suicide there are an estimated 25 suicide attempts, and millions more people who thought about ending their life.

Who is Affected by Suicide?

Every day, approximately 123 people in the U.S. die by suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death. Among people aged 10-34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. And it ranks as the fourth leading cause of death in those between 35 and 54 years of age. In 2017, twice as many Americans died by suicide than by homicide.

People of any age, gender, or ethnicity can struggle with thoughts of taking their own life. Men are more likely to die by suicide, but women are three times more likely to attempt suicide.

What Causes Suicidal Thoughts?

Some of the main risk factors for suicide include:

  • Being bullied
  • Chronic stress
  • Family rejection
  • Social isolation
  • Substance abuse
  • Traumatic brain injury (TBI)
  • Chronic medical condition
  • Family history of suicide
  • History of trauma or abuse
  • Family history of substance abuse
  • Family history of mental health problems
  • Mental health disorders (especially depression)
  • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of a family member or friend or even in media

Warning signs of suicide:

  • Talking about feeling hopeless
  • Talking about being in pain
  • Talking about being a burden
  • Increasing the use of drugs or alcohol
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Talking about seeking revenge
  • Withdrawing socially
  • Showing rage

Why Choose Amen Clinics for Treating Suicidal Thoughts and Behavior?

Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues can be major contributors to suicidal ideation and behavior, especially when these conditions go untreated or misdiagnosed. Unfortunately, this is far too common in people who are suffering with symptoms of psychiatric disorders. At Amen Clinics, our brain imaging work using SPECT technology has shown that suicidal thoughts and behavior can have multiple contributing factors. Scanning the brain can provide vital information so our doctors can put together a personalized treatment plan to get better.

Suicidal Brains Work Differently

Our brain imaging work has taught us so much about the brains of people who have suicidal thoughts and behaviors. We have scanned over 300 people who have attempted suicide and many more who have thought about ending their life. The majority of these people had a tendency to get stuck in negative thinking patterns, were impulsive, were prone to anger and irritability, and showed poor judgment. The combination of negative thoughts, anger, and impulsivity can add up to a dangerous situation.

Healthy Brain Scan

Suicidal Brain Scan

SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) is a nuclear medicine study that evaluates blood flow and activity in the brain. Basically, it shows three things: healthy activity, too little activity, or too much activity. The healthy surface brain SPECT scan on the left shows full, even symmetrical activity. The scan on the right from someone who attempted suicide reveals unhealthy “holes” (areas that represent low blood flow and activity) in several areas, including the brain’s prefrontal cortex, an area involved in impulse control, judgment, and decision-making. See below for more about common SPECT findings in suicidal people.

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Suicide and Mental Health

Depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other mental health issues can be major contributors to suicidal ideation and behavior, especially when these conditions go untreated, misdiagnosed, or mistreated. Unfortunately, this is far too common in people who are suffering with symptoms of psychiatric disorders. For example, did you know that more than half of depressed people have what’s known as treatment-resistant depression? This means they’re taking antidepressants but not getting the relief from their symptoms they so desperately want.

In part this is due to the fact that mental health disorders are not single or simple problems. At Amen Clinics, our brain imaging work using SPECT technology has shown that anxiety and depression, ADD/ADHD, and other conditions are not single or simple disorders. We have identified 7 types of anxiety and depression, 7 types of ADD/ADHD, and more. To get relief, you need to know your type.

In people who are suffering from suicidal depression, severe anxiety, paralyzing PTSD, or other issues, scanning the brain can provide vital information.

 

Is Self-Harm A Warning Sign of Suicide?

You may think that other types of self-inflicted injury—such as cutting, burning, or head banging—could be a sign of suicidal thoughts. Although causing physical harm to oneself is very troubling behavior, it is generally carried out as a coping mechanism for dealing with life as opposed to an attempt to end one’s life. Self-harm is considered nonsuicidal in nature, however, up to 40% of people who self-harm think about suicide, and approximately 50%-85% have made at least one suicide attempt in their lifetime. Because of this, it is absolutely critical to seek help for any form of self-harming behavior. Self-injury behaviors can also be a sign of other mental health conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder, which is why they need to be investigated.

 

Suicidal Thoughts and Behavior and the Brain

Our brain imaging work has taught us so much about the brains of people who have suicidal thoughts and behaviors. We have scanned over 300 people who have attempted suicide and many more who have thought about ending their life. The majority of these people had a tendency to get stuck in negative thinking patterns, were impulsive, were prone to anger and irritability, and showed poor judgment. The combination of negative thoughts, anger, and impulsivity can add up to a dangerous situation.

Some of our main findings include:

  • Temporal Lobes: Brain SPECT imaging shows that people with suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts often have abnormalities in the left temporal lobe. In an Amen Clinics study, we saw left temporal lobe problems in 62% of our patients who had serious suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI): After reviewing over 150,000 functional brain scans related to behavior it is clear that head injuries are a leading cause of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and panic disorders, PTSD, ADD/ADHD, substance abuse, psychosis, borderline and antisocial personality disorders, dementia, aggression. Concussions and TBIs also increase the risk of suicide. When the brain has functional damage due to a head injury, it’s critical to heal the brain in order to overcome any mental health problems. At Amen Clinics, 40% of our patients have had a significant brain injury, but they often don’t remember it until they see their brain scan, which clearly shows TBI damage.
  • Prefrontal Cortex: A large-scale study by researchers at Portland State University found that about 22% of people who died by suicide were legally intoxicated at the time of their death. Brain scans show that alcohol lowers function in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in impulse control, judgment, and decision-making.
  • Anterior Cingulate Gyrus: People with overactivity in this area of the brain tend to get stuck on negative thoughts, which is one of the traits we see in people with suicidal thoughts and behavior.

 

“With A Better Brain Comes A Better Life”

– Daniel G. Amen, M.D.

 

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