TBI increases the risk of suicidal thoughts – what can be done about it?

The reasons that anyone commits suicide, or attempts it, are always complex. But the sad, and dangerous fact, is that traumatic brain injury increases the risk of suicidal thoughts or death by suicide. For the brain injured, it’s thought to be the overall impact of all the dramatic changes to one’s life — to your livelihood, your social relationships,  your family roles, etc.

Possible biological triggers of suicide

The triggers for suicidal thoughts can be partly biological. Some studies suggest damage to certain parts of the brain lead to greater impulsivity; in addition, prior head injuries can have an impact.

Recent research on military veterans with TBI is shedding light on the suicide connection, in two areas:

(1) A prior head injury increases the likelihood of having suicidal thoughts. Many veterans who experienced brain injury in the military and later committed suicide had experienced prior sports injuries to the head. In fact, nearly 22% of those with prior brain injuries had thoughts about or preoccupation with suicide, compared to 6% with no prior injuries.

This coincides with a finding in 2010 about the suicide of a college football player. He was popular on the team and voted one of the captains. An autopsy revealed he had a syndrome called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), that boxers also get from repeated concussions or similar injuries. This syndrome has been linked to depression, erratic behavior, poor impulse control, and cases of suicide.

(2) Mild head injuries are more likely to lead to thoughts of suicide than more serious head injuries. Doctors don’t know why this is. They currently speculate that this could be psychological – those with relatively minor injuries may expect too much of themselves. Or, this could be the result of physical damage that disrupts the brain function in a way that doctors don’t fully understand yet.

What can be done?

Experts are always careful to stress that each case of suicide is unique. The person may even appear to be doing well, but might have recently experienced a lot of setbacks and lost their perspective on recovery. They may start to feel that life in this diminished state is not worthwhile – one TBI survivor said she lived on the edge for a period, until she found a new purpose and focus in life.

The main point is that the potential for suicidal thoughts is there and loved ones and experts need to be prepared to look for it and address it. Pre-injury factors can complicate recovery and contribute. These include

  • The quality of family and social relationships
  • Prior drug or alcohol abuse
  • Prior mental health issues

Professionals can evaluate other causes or contributors, including the site of the injury, medication side effects, and other risky behaviors.

Trained professionals may be able to help a person stay out of danger, although sadly, even with intervention, suicide is not always preventable. Even strong protective factors may fail when the person is in a crisis. Crisis signs that require immediate attention include:

  • Thinking about hurting/killing oneself
  • Searching for ways to commit suicide
  • Looking for access to weapons or drugs, or other means of suicide
  • Talking about dying or suicide

There are several “protective factors” that can help a person withstand suicidal thoughts. These include social support from family and friends, connection with a spiritual belief, and having learned coping/adaptive skills.

How A Brain Injury Lawyer Can Help You

If you’ve sustained a brain injury because of an accident that was caused by someone else, you may want to contact a brain injury lawyer. While we cannot change what has happened to you, we can help you to obtain compensation for the proper medical care you need now and may need in the future.