What is the role of life experiences in the development of suicidal behaviors?

Updated: Jul 26, 2021
  • Author: Stephen Soreff, MD; Chief Editor: Glen L Xiong, MD  more...
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Certain recent life events can precipitate suicidal behavior. These include romance-related losses, such as the termination of a love relationship or a divorce; a job termination, or the loss of a pet. The acute loss can be devastating. [61]

A number of past life events are also linked to suicide. The most important is suicide by a family member or a friend. Not infrequently, history of a father, mother, or sibling committing suicide correlates with suicide by another member of that family.

Suicide by a friend may provoke others to duplicate the event; indeed, suicide has a contagious aspect, especially among adolescents. [62] Not uncommonly, one suicide in a high school is followed by other suicides or attempts. In fact, bereavement for a person who has completed suicide stands as a significant risk factor. Researchers examined 3,432 eligible respondents aged 18-40 who were bereaved by suicide of a friend or relative after the age of 10. Results showed that adults bereaved by suicide had a higher probability of attempting suicide than those bereaved by sudden natural causes, suggesting that bereavement by suicide is a specific risk factor for suicide attempt among young bereaved adults. [63]

As discussed earlier, persons with PTSD are particularly vulnerable to suicide. These individuals may have a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Damage to the person leads to self-destructive actions.

One study found that sexual violence and having witnessed violence were significant predictors of lifetime suicide attempts. [64] This study, which examined the possible link between trauma exposure and suicidal behavior, was conducted with 4351 adult South Africans from 2002-2004 as part of the World Health Organization (WHO) World Mental Health Surveys. A 2014 meta-analysis reached similar conclusions. [65, 66] Future research is needed to better understand how and why these experiences in particular increase the risk of suicidal outcomes.

Victimization by bullying is another experience that has emerged as a correlate to suicidal behavior, and attention must be paid to this in the suicide assessment. In a landmark study by Klomek et al of 5302 children in Finland born in 1981, the authors found evidence that bullying at age 8 years was linked to self-destructive behavior later in life. [67] When controlling for depression and conduct symptoms, suicide attempts and completions in later life in females were significantly correlated to bullying. However, the same correlation was not apparent for males. [67]

More evidence that being bullied in childhood leads to self-injurious behavior in adolescence was provided by a study conducted by Fisher et al. The authors analyzed data for 2141 children in the UK and found that among children aged 12 years who had self harmed (2.9%; n=62), more than half were victims of frequent bullying (56%; n=35). Exposure to frequent bullying predicted higher rates of self-harm even after accounting for other risk factors such as emotional and behavioral problems, low IQ, and family environmental risks. [68]

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