This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.


Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people. There are over 30,000 suicides per year in the United States and many more failed attempts. Scientists from many disciplines have worked together to try to understand suicide. Some of their findings confirm previous suspicions and stereotypes, others do not. Among the major findings are these:

What have researchers found out about suicide?

1. Suicide is typically not an isolated event in the life of an otherwise normal person. It is most likely to occur in somebody with recurring problems of drug abuse and/or depression. For example, a study of 67 teen suicides found that 40% of the victims suffered from "major depression" while at least a third were addicted to alcohol or other drugs.

2. Family problems are undoubtedly a major cause of unhappiness for some people, but people who commit suicide are just as likely to come from a warm and stable family as an abusive or unstable family. Suicide appears to result from individual psychological factors more than family problems.

3. The best predictor of suicide is a history of previous suicide attempts.

4. Suicide has a moderate tendency to run in families. "A person from a family of someone who attempts suicide has a higher risk of suicidality than someone from a family with no suicide attempts." (Holden, 1992)

What are some ethnic differences in the statistics about suicide?

One of the surprising findings from suicide research is the presence of large differences between ethnic groups. Blacks are 60% less likely to commit suicide than whites. In whites, the probability of suicide (after teenage years) goes up with age. But Eve Moscicki of the National Institute of Mental Health found that for African-American women suicide is "practically nonexistent" in old age.

Researchers have found that people who attempt suicide are often low in the brain transmitter serotonin. One researcher referred to serotonin as a "brake" for violent impulses. If that is true, many potentially suicidal people may get the biochemical help they need from the anti-depression drug Prozac and similar anti-depressants that increases serotonin levels in the brain.

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