Suicide is a common yet often unmentioned health risk of bipolar disorder. Find out how to recognize symptoms and prevent suicide in people with this health condition.
Whenever someone commits suicide, whether they’re a celebrity, acquaintance, or even a family member, the question often asked by those left behind is why. “At least 90 percent of the time, an untreated or undertreated mood disorder is to blame,” says Ken Duckworth, MD, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Those with bipolar disorder, sometimes also called manic depression, are especially at risk for suicide. Statistics are sobering: As many as 15 percent of people with bipolar disorder will die by their own hands, half will attempt to, and nearly 80 percent will contemplate doing so. Jacqueline Castine, who is bipolar herself and a spokesperson for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, knows it was bipolar disorder that led her son to take his own life in October 2007. It was his fifth suicide attempt. “Nobody wants to talk about suicide,” she says. “The stigma, shame, and suffering are, for most, unspoken.” And yet, for those with bipolar disorder and their families, the threat of suicide is very real.
What Are the Signs That Someone May Be Suicidal?
People with bipolar II disorder have a particularly high risk for suicide, particularly when they are in the depressive phase of their illness. Individuals with mixed-manic episodes (states in which they exhibit intense signs of both depression and mania simultaneously) may have an even higher chance of becoming suicidal.
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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the following factors increase the risk that someone may be suicidal:
Talking about feeling suicidal or wanting to die, discussing death or writing about it
Feeling hopeless, trapped — that nothing will ever change or get better
Feeling helpless — that nothing one does makes any difference
Feeling like a burden to family and friends, that others would be “better off without me”
Feeling a lack of purpose in one’s life
Withdrawing from friends, family, activities
Experiencing recent loss of a significant relationship
Abusing alcohol or drugs
Having a personality disorder
Making previous suicide attempts
Experiencing recent loss of a friend or acquaintance through suicide
Having family members who have committed suicide
Putting affairs in order (e.g., organizing finances or giving away possessions to prepare for one’s death)
Writing a suicide note
Engaging in risky behavior, putting oneself in harm’s way or in situations where there is a danger of being injured or killed
Bipolar Disorder and Suicide: What Can You Do?
Someone who is talking about suicide should always be taken seriously and receive immediate attention, preferably from a mental-health professional or physician. If someone you know is contemplating suicide, you should:
Call a doctor, emergency room, or 911 right away to get immediate help.
Make sure the person’s immediate family members know how he or she is feeling.
Make sure the suicidal person is not left alone.
Don’t let the individual drink or use drugs.
Make sure that access is prevented to large amounts of medication, weapons, or other items that could be used for self-harm.
Reassure the individual that there is help available.
Contract with the individual for safety.
If you are feeling suicidal:
Tell someone you can trust — a family member, friend, teacher, minister, or rabbi.
Call a doctor, emergency room, 911, or a suicide-prevention hotline.
Stay with other people — don’t put yourself in the position of being alone.
Stay away from drugs and alcohol.
“Suicidal feelings pass if they are not acted on, at least most of the time, for most of the people,” Duckworth says. “I would encourage anyone considering suicide to consider getting treatment for their depression first before making such a big decision.”
Where to Turn for Help
Trained counselors are available to talk with people considering suicide or friends and family members of someone considering suicide by phone, toll-free, 24 hours a day at 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).