Nearly four in 10 people who seriously consider suicide end up recovering long-term, achieving a mental state that’s free of suicidal symptoms or thoughts, a new Canadian study finds.
Certain factors help, however: The chances of recovery are more than seven times greater when a patient has a close confidant to trust and count on, researchers from the University of Toronto reported.
“Most people will eventually have to deal with tragedy,” said study co-author Philip Baiden, a doctoral candidate and graduate fellow at the university’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. “So this speaks to the general importance of having somebody to confide in. It can be challenging to find these people, even if you have a lot of friends. But having people you can draw on to have an intimate personal conversation with, and who can offer you some support, can be very helpful.”
Baiden and his co-author, Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor at Factor-Inwentash, discussed their findings in a recent issue of the journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior.
The study authors noted that suicide is among the leading causes of death in North America. According to the World Health Organization, more than 800,000 people around the world died by suicide in 2012.
Experts believe that the two most reliable predictors of future suicide risk are a prior attempt and current contemplation of suicide — called “suicidal ideation.”
The new study looked at data on nearly 2,900 formerly suicidal men and women — aged 20 and up — from 10 Canadian provinces who took part in the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health.
People were asked to indicate if they had been suicidal or had suicidal thoughts during the past year. They were also asked to indicate how happy and satisfied they had been over the prior month, and whether in that time they had slept well, drank, used drugs, and/or had major depressive illness.
“Being happy or satisfied just two or three times a week did not qualify as ‘complete’ mental health,” said Baiden. “We had very strict conservative criteria. The bar was set very, very high.”
Factors linked to complete mental health recovery included being female, older, having a higher income, not having a prior history of mental illness, and having some sort of “spiritual” foundation, the study found.
Achieving complete mental health proved more elusive for those who continued to struggle with chronic pain, sleep difficulties or alcohol abuse, according to the study.
The researchers observed that those who had access to greater social support in the form of a trusted confidant had a huge leg up when it came to recovering completely.
Baiden wasn’t surprised.
“People who are friends or loved ones of those who have gone through this should reach out and check in with those going through difficult times,” he advised. “Of course that’s generally a good idea, but most important for those who have been suicidal in the past. And make sure to let the individual know that you are there for them and available to talk to if they need your support.”
That advice was seconded by Michelle Roley, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
“The concerns I have heard from social supports are that if I talk about suicide and I engage my loved one in a conversation about their thoughts of suicide, then I am condoning or encouraging them to consider suicide,” said Roley, who wasn’t involved with the study. “[But] I cannot stress enough how important these conversations can be.
“Having a close other to say ‘I am thinking about suicide’ can really be very helpful to that person,” she added. “[Because] in general, suicide requires a lot of energy to overcome the human instinct to live, and at that level, individuals are not operating from a logical, rational decision-making frame of mind.
“Thus, having a close other to say ‘I hear you, right now you are struggling, these things, X, Y, Z, are not going well for you. I can see how you’ve come to consider suicide as an option. It probably is hard to see other options. Let me help you come up with other options. Remember, your pain is not going to last forever.’ That can be incredibly helpful.”
There’s more on suicide attempt recovery at the American Association of Suicidology.