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The Emerging Neuroscience Working to Prevent Suicide

Posted: September 10, 2020

It’s a hard topic to discuss, but over half of all adults have been personally touched by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and the second leading cause of death among 15-34 year olds. That rate has been steadily rising over the last 15 years. In 2018, there were over 48,000 deaths by suicide in this country. That is 1 death every 11 minutes. 

Knowing the warning signs and where to get help demonstrably saves lives. That’s why September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. And within that month, there’s increased emphasis during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week September 6-12, and on National Suicide Prevention Awareness Day September 10. 

Suicidology is the scientific study of suicidal behavior, the causes of suicidalness and suicide prevention. Much of the research in suicidology has been based in psychology and sociology, with influences from philosophy, law, medicine and other disciplines. 

Recently, biologists and neuroscientists have joined the study of suicide, utilizing techniques ranging from population genetics to brain imaging. Compelling evidence suggests that specific biochemical changes are involved in the development of suicidal behaviors. Understanding the underlying biology of suicidal behaviors can lead to improved prevention methods, in conjunction with the mental health disorders that often accompany them. These biochemical changes include changes in neurotransmitter receptors and their genes, alterations in the stress response signaling pathways (like the HPA axis which triggers cortisol release) and even neuroinflammatory responses to infections, depression and other conditions affecting brain pathways.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began in early 2020, suicidal ideation, that is people who have seriously considered suicide, has doubled. We won’t know the real effect of the pandemic on suicide statistics for a couple years, because data is very slowly accumulated and analyzed in this field, but organizations who work to prevent suicide are paying close attention. 

We do know that calls to suicide prevention hotlines have increased, according to information shared recently by Northern Virginia’s CrisisLink. Callers report increased substance use, relapse and abuse/domestic violence, all of which can lead to suicidal thoughts. Calls indicate that the current state of economic distress has led to a drop in therapy--and therefore an increase in untreated people--as individuals have either lost their health insurance or can’t afford therapy, or their therapist has stopped working in order to care for their own kids. This loss of professional therapy makes our informal connections and social support even more important right now.

Social isolation is one of the key factors affecting mental and behavioral health at this time, and it is important to pay attention to how your friends and family are dealing with this isolation. Look for creative ideas to connect with others, while maintaining a safe social distance and be aware of loneliness.

While the neurobiological factors underlying suicidal behavior are still under investigation, it’s clear that maintaining good mental and physical health can be a key preventative tool. 

As the effects of this pandemic stretch out before us, it will be important for us all to actively work to protect our own and others’ mental health. 

Reach out if you or someone you know needs crisis counseling. These organizations are available 24/7 and can help connect you with local resources:

  1. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK
  2. Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 to connect
  3. SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990  

Want to learn more about suicide prevention awareness? Here are some campaigns and organizations to help. And a special thanks to Dr. Danette Gibbs, Ph.D. Director of Research and Strategic Planning for The Campus Suicide Prevention Center of Virginia for assistance with these resources!

  1. is an important campaign from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
  2. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosts most of the walks and has resources to help yourself and help others. They are hosting several online events for Suicide Prevention Week, and also have several articles, stories and practical info.
  3. offers fantastic resources, including a campaign targeting youth and young adults.
  4. From National Council for Suicide Prevention, has a challenge for Suicide Prevention Day that includes five important steps (learn the signs, know how to help, practice self-care, reach out and spread the word).
  5. This promotional campaign from the Veteran’s Crisis Line (a sub-division of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) was developed for veterans, but has generally applicable information:
  6. is an intriguing website created by a member of the American Association for Suicidology to share stories from survivors of suicide attempts. These are beautifully done and don’t share details that could risk contagion/copycat suicides. Instead, they help people feel less alone in their suicidal thoughts and promote resilience and coping by helping people realize they can have those feelings and still get through them by seeing people who have been through similar experiences and survived them. 

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