Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a mental disorder at the time of their deaths. There are biological and psychological treatments that can help address the underlying health issues that put people at risk for suicide.
Treatment for Suicide and Suicide Attempts
At this time, there is only one medication, clozapine, approved by the FDA for suicide risk reduction in patients with schizophrenia. There is one study of mood disorder patients that shows that treatment with antidepressants, atypical antipsychotics, and lithium reduced death by suicide. There are meta-analyses of small lithium studies that show that suicide is reduced in patients with either bipolar disorder or major depression taking lithium, but those findings are controversial.
There are two proven psychotherapies for treating those who attempt suicide: cognitive behavior therapy for suicide attempters (CBT for suicide attempters) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) for patients with borderline personality disorder and recurrent suicidal ideation and behaviors. Clearly theses short term interactive therapies make a difference.
There are many small studies of various interventions, including promising short term therapies that include the family, that show that repeat suicide attempts are reduced under the treatment condition being tested.▲ Back to Top
Treatment for Major Depression
Research shows that teaching health care professionals to recognize and treat depression is an effective way to reduce suicide rates. Because that is a proven fact, we focus here on how depression can be treated, both with medications and with psychotherapy.
If the depression is mild, the doctor may begin with psychotherapy alone and add medication later if the symptoms don’t improve.▲ Back to Top
Many medications are available to treat depression, the most common of which are antidepressants. About 22 medications are currently approved by the FDA. Since there is no accurate test to match a person’s symptoms and complaints with the right medication, there is no way to know which drug will work best for a particular person. The person who may be depressed should discuss with their doctor the medication choice and how to take it, as well as the potential side effects. Sometimes there is the need to try a few different medications before finding the one that gives the best result with minimum side effects.
When the optimal dose with the best medication is achieved, the antidepressant may take from 4–12 weeks to achieve maximum benefit, but it is possible for one or two symptoms to improve in the first few weeks.
When antidepressants are started or when doses are increased, a few patients, especially children, adolescents and young adults, may experience increased anxiety, agitation, restlessness, irritability or anger which may lead to suicidal thoughts or attempts. These should be outlined by the doctor before the treatment begins.▲ Back to Top
Beyond medicines, specific types of psychotherapies have been proven effective for treating depression. These are usually short term lasting from 12–16 weeks and they are formalized and interactive. Sessions may take place one to two times a week with a professional who has been specifically trained and certified in the treatment they are using.
The most common types of psychotherapy for depression are cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), behavioral activation (BH), and cognitive behavioral analysis system of psychotherapy (CBASP). There is clear evidence from research studies that combining antidepressants with any one of these psychotherapies is the best treatment for chronic depression, meaning that the patient has had a depressive illness for two years or more.▲ Back to Top
If the depression does not respond to treatment or if it is very severe or if psychotic symptoms appear, there are additional treatments that should be used. The oldest and best studied is electroconvulsive therapy, a treatment that can be given as an out or inpatient, but requires anesthesia and the delivery of a small electric current to the brain. It is remarkably effective but can have side effects, which the doctors are working to reduce.
A similar treatment is transmagnetic stimulation (TMS) which is less dramatic and may not be as effective.
Finally, for those who suffer from seasonal mood disorder (SAD), the doctor may suggest light therapy in addition to other treatment.▲ Back to Top
Treatment for Bipolar Disorder
Another high risk group is people with bipolar disorder, which is characterized by mood swings from high (manic) to low (depressed), often with periods of feeling normal between. Those with bipolar disorder are at greatest risk for suicide when they are in a depression or have a mixed mood state.
With bipolar disorder, the doctor will begin treatment with a mood stabilizer such as lithium, mood stabilizing anticonvulsants, or antipsychotics. The use of antidepressants for the depressive phase of the illness is sometimes important, but there is no evidence that antidepressants have long lasting results.▲ Back to Top
Treatment for Alcohol and Drug Abuse
When combined with depression, bipolar disorder or any mental disorder, alcohol and drug abuse can increase suicide risk. When being treated, the patient should be completely honest about his/her alcohol or drug intake for the safest treatment and the best chance of getting better. Treatment for alcohol and drug abuse is varied but always includes a strong psychosocial component. A new online resource is now available to help people recognize and find high quality care for alcohol use disorder. Click here to visit.
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