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National Suicide Prevention Month: Mental Health & ASD Individuals

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) already at a significantly increased risk for suicidal ideation, it is important to give attention to ways the autism community is affected by mental health issues such as depression.

In the research article, “Risk and Protective Factors Underlying Depression and Suicidal Ideation in Autism Spectrum Disorder”, Hedley et al. discuss the factors for depression and suicidal ideation found in individuals with ASD. Since ASD is characterized by common difficulties like social communication, ASD symptoms can often lead to conflicts, loneliness, and social isolation. These stressors can manifest into depressive symptoms and may increase risk of depression and suicidal thoughts or behavior.

Loneliness is described as “a lack of social contact and the feeling of being cut-off or separated from other people” (Hays & Di Matteo, 1987; as cited in Hedley et al., 2018), and along with social isolation, are important risk factors for depression and suicidal ideation. These risk factors are extremely prevalent in individuals with ASD, especially since they can be prone to social exclusion and have difficulty in establishing and maintaining friendships. While research about ASD and the high risk of suicide, it has been found that suicidal ideation found in individuals with ASD is significantly higher than the general population and is even a leading cause of premature death. Although individuals with ASD are more susceptible to these risk factors, Hedley et al. believe that social support and intervention can serve as protective factors that buffer from the consequences of mental health.

Social support is associated with “feeling cared for, loved, and being a member of a larger social network” (Hedley et al., 2018). Individuals that suffer from depression often feel that there is no one they rely on or go to for support, a sentiment that individuals with ASD often feel considering their difficulty with social relationships. While one might target depression to reduce risk of suicidal ideation and behavior, Hedley et al. have found that other indirect factors such as loneliness and lack of social support networks – can also largely contribute to suicidal ideation. Thus, identifying the need for social support and increasing its availability will help individuals with ASD have more opportunities for regular social interaction and establishing relationships. This can potentially minimize the effects of social isolation, which both adolescents and adults with ASD often experience.

Warning Signs of Suicidal Behavior

• Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves

• Looking for a way to kill themselves, like searching online or buying a gun

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

• Talking about being a burden to others

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

• Acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly

• Sleeping too little or too much

• Withdrawing or isolating themselves

• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

• Extreme mood swings

If you or a loved one exhibits any of these warning signs listed above, please seek help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Hedley, D, Uljarević, M, Foley, K‐R, Richdale, A, Trollor, J. Risk and protective factors underlying depression and suicidal ideation in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Depress Anxiety. 2018; 35: 648– 657.

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