Suicide Prevention Starts in the Brain

September has been designated as Suicide Prevention Month, with the goal of raising awareness and diminishing the stigma around this topic. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) uses this time to “shift public perception, spread hope, and share vital information to people affected by suicide,” including individuals, friends, and families, in order to create open discussions on suicide prevention and educate on how to get help.

From victims to those survivors left suffering in the wake of a loved one’s death, suicide changes lives forever. And this kind of tragedy affects people from all corners of society—all ages, genders, economic classes, and races. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control, suicides accounted for 45,979 deaths in the United States in 2020, equating to 14 per 100,000 people, which makes this the 12th leading cause of death in our country.

But there is help—and hope. At Amen Clinics, physicians have found that, although suicide is a complicated topic, its prevention can start in the brain. Through brain SPECT imaging studies, those who have reported suicidal thoughts or attempts have shown some underlying brain abnormalities that may point to clues when it comes to this behavior. Knowing these facts can help a loved one before it’s too late.

Traumatic brain injuries can cause dramatic changes in brain function, thereby increasing levels of anxiety, depression, impulsivity, anger, poor decision-making, and substance abuse—all of which make a person more likely to contemplate… Click To Tweet

What Brain Scans Reveal About Suicidal Tendencies

Amen Clinics has performed brain scans on more than 300 people who have made a suicide attempt, and on many more who have considered ending their lives. Through this research, it is clear that most of these individuals possessed some combination of certain traits that are related to trouble in the brain, including impulsiveness, negative thinking patterns, flashes of irritability or anger, and a lack of sound judgment. These are associated with various changes or abnormalities in the brain, such as:

  • Head injuries. Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), including concussions, happen when there’s a disruption in healthy brain function due to an injury to the head. These can be anything from a bump to a serious blow—for example, mild cases, such as those that happen by falling off a bike or ladder, or getting into a car accident, may not even cause a blackout. TBIs can cause dramatic changes in brain function, thereby increasing levels of anxiety, depression, impulsivity, anger, poor decision-making, and substance abuse—all of which make a person more likely to contemplate suicide. To make matters more complicated, a person may not even be aware of the underlying issue. Brain scans show that 40% of Amen Clinics patients have experienced head trauma, but many of them don’t remember getting injured.
  • Temporal lobe abnormalities. Brain SPECT imaging studies show that those with suicidal thoughts and behavior often have abnormalities in their temporal lobes, brain regions that relate to memory, mood stability, and temper issues. These issues are especially common in the left temporal lobe—in one study done at Amen Clinics, left temporal lobe problems were present in 62% of people who seriously considered taking their own life or who made a suicide attempt.
  • Prefrontal cortex (PFC) activity. The PFC is associated with judgment, forethought, planning, and impulse control. In the brain imaging of those who are suicidal, this area often shows low blood flow, meaning that these functions are impaired. It’s also worth noting that certain actions can further lower PFC activity, such as drinking alcohol—in fact, one study showed that alcohol intoxication was a factor in 22% of suicide deaths.
  • Anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG) overactivity. As the brain’s “gear shifter,” the ACG helps us move from thought to thought. But when activity in this region goes into overdrive, a brain can potentially get trapped within cycles of negative thoughts—a common difficulty reported among those who have exhibited suicidal thoughts and actions.

Preventing Suicide and Saving Lives Through Brain Healing

With various brain changes potentially present in those with suicidal tendencies, it’s crucial to help prevent suicide by identifying and healing any underlying brain dysfunction. Fortunately, more than one solution may be available to help tackle these problems. Some people may benefit from medication or nutraceuticals for their impulsivity, while psychotherapy can help change any habitual negative thinking patterns. Making simple yet powerful lifestyle changes—including ditching a junk-food diet for a brain healthy eating plan, getting adequate sleep, and engaging in daily exercise—also help optimize the brain and boost moods.

With a comprehensive approach, a person can dramatically improve brain health, resulting in elevated moods, better performance at school or work, healthier relationships, and increased frustration tolerance, and stronger impulse control. In other words, healing the brain can help save lives. The best way to prevent suicide, or help someone after a suicide attempt, is to help them heal their brain.

How to Help During Suicide Prevention Month

You can help support the mission of Suicide Prevention Month in a variety of ways. NAMI recommends promoting awareness throughout September by using social media hashtags such as #SuicidePrevention or #Together4MH. You can also search for local walks to support the cause, or for events that will take place on National Suicide Prevention Week (September 4 to 10).

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call or text 988. This new number makes reaching the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline easier than ever, so help spread the word about it in your community. And consider sharing this blog so others can learn that suicide prevention starts in the brain.

To receive 8% off a FULL or PARTIAL evaluation with Amen Clinics, use code TASCAN8. To book directly or for more information, please call Amen Clinics at 888-288-9834. 

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