BACKGROUND This study investigated three questions with major implications for suicide prevention: the sensitivity of the history of previous suicide attempt(s) as an indicator of suicide risk, the time interval from a preceding suicide attempt to the fatal one, and switching of suicide methods by those eventually completing suicide.
METHOD The lifetime history of suicide attempts and the methods the victims (n = 1397) used were examined in a nationwide psychological autopsy study comprising all suicides in Finland within a 12-month research period in 1987-1988.
RESULTS Overall, 56% of suicide victims were found to have died at their first suicide attempt, more males (62%) than females (38%). In 19% of males and 39% of females the victim had made a non-fatal attempt during the final year. Of the victims with previous attempts, 82% had used at least two different methods in their suicide attempts (the fatal included).
CONCLUSIONS Most male and a substantial proportion of female suicides die in their first suicide attempt, a fact that necessitates early recognition of suicide risk, particularly among males. Recognition of periods of high suicide risk on the grounds of recent non-fatal suicide attempts is likely to be important for suicide prevention among females. Subjects completing suicide commonly switch from one suicide method to another, a finding that weakens but does not negate the credibility of restrictions on the availability of lethal methods as a preventive measure.