People with untreated mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, are at higher risk for suicide and attempted suicide

Suicide—the 11th leading cause of death in the United States—is a major complication of depression. About one in 16 people diagnosed with depression die by suicide, and approximately two thirds of people who die by suicide are depressed.

In the United States, suicide risk is highest in older white males and in those who

  • live alone,
  • have made prior suicide attempts,
  • refuse psychiatric evaluation, or
  • abuse alcohol or other drugs.

Although women attempt suicide three to four times more often than men, men are three to four times more likely to die by suicide. In addition, a study found that older people with a serious physical illness were six times more likely to die by suicide than those without an illness.

In a U.K. study, interpersonal problems and bereavement, along with chronic physical illness (pain, breathlessness, and functional limitation), were commonly associated with suicide in older people. The risk of suicide is particularly high in people with untreated bipolar disorder. About 25 to 50 percent of those with the condition attempt suicide at least once. Moreover, suicide is a major concern among adolescents and young adults—it is the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 24.

Up to three quarters of people who die by suicide have visited their medical doctor in the prior month. This statistic suggests that they were aware that something was wrong but that neither they nor their doctor identified depression as the problem.

Although it is impossible to predict accurately who will attempt suicide, there are warning signs that a severely depressed person may make an attempt. All too often, friends and relatives of people who die by suicide are unaware of these red flags until it is too late.

The most important steps to prevent suicide are to recognize the risk factors and warning signs and to facilitate appropriate treatment of the underlying psychiatric illness. Typical warning signs are listed below. However, not all people who die by suicide have these risk factors, and most people who do have them are not suicidal.

Suicide warning signs include the following:

  • Social isolation that may be self-imposed
  • Drastic mood swings or overall personality changes
  • Neglecting home, finances, or pets
  • Recent psychological trauma, such as a divorce, death of a loved one, or job loss (which may trigger suicidal thinking in an already depressed person)
  • Exaggerated complaints of aches or pains
  • Giving away cherished belongings to loved ones or putting one's affairs in order
  • Sudden calm or cheerfulness after a period of depression
  • Frequent use of alcohol or other drugs
  • Buying a gun
  • Verbal threats of suicide or statements that suggest a desire to die
  • Family history of suicide or previous suicide attempts.

Publication Review By: Karen L. Swartz, M.D.

Published: 02 Mar 2011

Last Modified: 28 Apr 2015