If self-preservation is our most basic instinct, then suicide is, at least conceptually, a grave concern. Suicide prevention requires recognizing risk factors and the people who are most vulnerable to them. This got me thinking, do Highly Sensitive People (HSPs) have a higher risk of suicide compared to people who are less sensitive?

The topic of suicide isn’t specific to those with “obvious,” tell-tale symptoms. How often do we hear grieving loved ones lament that they “had no idea” or that the deceased “had so much to live for”? 

It’s no small thing that the suicide rate in the United States has steadily increased since 2000. In 2021, suicide was responsible for 48,183 deaths — a 36% increase since 2000. And another increase from 2021 to 2022 no doubt speaks to the isolation from the COVID pandemic.

What determines general risk for suicide?

Before examining reasons that Highly Sensitive People have a higher risk of suicide, we need to look at general risk factors for suicide.

When calculated against global mortality, suicide accounts for 1.4% of all deaths. That may not sound like a lot until you weigh the sheer tragedy of suicide and its more frequeny occurrence within specific populations.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, most suicides are related to psychiatric disease. The most relevant risk factors are depression, substance abuse, and psychosis.

However, other contributing factors include anxiety, personality-, trauma-, and eating-related disorders, as well as organic mental disorders. 

On the one hand, most people with mental disorders do not die by suicide. 

On the other hand, roughly 90% of people who die by suicide do suffer from mental disease.

And the death by suicide rate for disorders like depression, alcoholism, and schizophrenia is still upwards of five times that of the global rate of death by suicide.

It is interesting that suicidal risk is now viewed as multi-factorial. That is to say, it’s not simply the presence of a mental disorder that spikes the risk. It’s also the tendency for suicidal ideation and acting on that ideation.

Life experiences also have to be considered when evaluating the risk for death by suicide. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), for example, can contribute to mental and physical health issues in adulthood. 

Age, education level, maltreatment, reasons for living, and low income are also predictors of death by suicide.

So what does all this have to do with HSPs? And how does it influence the vulnerability to death by suicide for Highly Sensitive People?

What high sensitivity is and isn’t.

Whether or not you believe yourself to be highly sensitive, there is one thing to remember: High sensitivity is not a disorder, a disease, or a diagnosis. It is not a value statement or a scale of “rightness vs. wrongness.”

High sensitivity, also called sensory processing sensitivity, is simply a lower neurological threshold of perceptibility to internal and external stimuli.

Simply put, a Highly Sensitive Person senses and feels things more quickly and deeply than about 80-85% of the population.

(Not sure if high sensitivity describes you? This quiz will give you a good idea.)

While high sensitivity isn’t a disorder or flaw, it does, by its very nature, predispose the HSP to mental health problems like depression.

And, if a=b and b=c, then it makes sense that a Highly Sensitive Person might have a higher risk of death by suicide. At least, that is, if that HSP suffers from depression.

What qualities put Highly Sensitive People at higher risk of death by suicide?

By their very nature, HSPs are more sensitive to both external and internal stimuli. They see and hear what others miss; they feel what others will go out of their way to avoid feeling. 

And it’s not just their own experiences that register with HSPs. It’s all those feelings and dynamics vibrating around them that take up space in the highly sensitive spirit.

On the one hand, this level of sensitivity is a blessing, a gift, even a superpower.

On the other hand, it can seem like a curse, at least when the HSP hasn’t learned to manage it.

But why exactly are Highly Sensitive People at higher risk of suicide? And is there a chance that the qualities that make them so vulnerable may also be their saving grace?

Using the 4 Pillars of High Sensitivity, here are 7 reasons that HSPs are at higher risk of suicide.

  1. Depth of processing means the HSP is always thinking.  

    The HSP is in her element when she is dissecting layer after layer of incoming information. Those less familiar with the trait may jump to the “overthinking” conclusion. But the HSP is simply assimilating layers of information most of the world misses.

    As a gift, depth of processing is the stuff of which great inventors, creators, and problem-solvers are made.

    As a death by suicide risk factor, however, it can also lead the Highly Sensitive Person to more contemplative ideation. And suicidal ideation, remember, is one of the events that makes death by suicide risk “multi-factorial.”

    It is also right behind attempted suicide in severity because it is the precursor to making a suicide plan.

    If you or someone you know is contemplating or planning suicide, please reach out for help immediately. The number for Lifeline.org is simply 988.

    Because of their natural depth of processing, Highly Sensitive People are at higher risk of suicidal ideation, especially when they become depressed.

    They can talk themselves through the downward spiral of all the reasons they are a burden to the world and shouldn’t be here.

    They can make the mental and seemingly logical leap from feeling hopelessly misunderstood to feeling hopeless.

    At the same time, there’s good reason to believe that Highly Sensitive People, because of reasons below, would actually be more hesitant to commit suicide.

  1. Propensity for overwhelm can make the HSP want to jump off the Earth.

    Our world isn’t set up to prioritize, let alone cater to, the highly sensitive soul.

    To the HSP, life in this realm usually feels too fast, too superficial, too cold, too uncaring, too much. And “too much” can be a slippery slope to “I just can’t.”

    Consider, for example, that HSPs are especially prone to burnout and often struggle financially.

    First of all, they need regular intervals of downtime to recharge neurologically — not just a quarterly mini-vacation. That need isn’t part of most employers’ employee care manuals.

    Second, HSPs tend to feel uneasy with high-pressure marketing strategies, despite often wanting to be in business for themselves.

    Most of the best careers for HSPs involve helping others or generally “making the world a better, more beautiful place.” But choosing a career with deference to high sensitivity often means lower pay and/or autonomy. And autonomy requires initiative and assertiveness, which require a confidence and tough skin that HSPs often lack.

    So pile the pragmatics on top of the stress unleashed by a mercilessly demanding world and an inherent tendency for burnout. And suddenly the HSP is in a vulnerable, hopeless-feeling spot. All those life-enriching gifts the HSP is aching to manifest? They get shoved to the sidelines.

  1. High emotional sensitivity (empathy) means the HSP is always feeling other people’s emotions. 

    When it comes to the possibility that Highly Sensitive People have a higher risk of suicide, this deep emotional sensitivity may actually, ironically, be a saving grace.

    On the one hand, absorbing the emotions of everyone in the HSP’s life and vicinity is exhausting.

    The inability to not perceive, feel, and empathize means the HSP has to develop clear boundaries. Her self-care and -preservation depend on it.

    But there are inevitably times when the HSP will feel the heavy weight of the sadness or plight of others.

    The irony? Highly Sensitive People are so conscious of how others feel that some experts believe this awareness may be their greatest suicide prevention.

    Yes, they may deeply process all their flaws and challenges to a tipping point. But in the end, their instinctive care for how others feel may be the very hand that prevents acting on their ideation.

    And, Highly Sensitive People who have lost loved ones or acquaintances to suicide are deeply affected by the loss. They may ruminate for years over the deceased’s motivation or their own missed opportunity to help.

  1. Sensory overload can rattle the HSP’s sense of cohesiveness and ability to manage the qualities of high sensitivity.

    We all have a breaking point. Too much noise, too many bright lights, binding clothes, kids grabbing at your arms and pant legs, insane traffic.

    Some people seem to sail through the sensory overload with nonchalance.

    But HSPs can feel unglued at a much lower threshold of stimulation. Suddenly their external world is mocking and disrupting their internal world, which is where they essentially live.

    And this sensory assault can lead to problems like heightened irritability and anxiety and diminished sleep.

    Throw those debilitating naysayers into the cauldron with a deep-thinking, overwhelmed brain and tender heart, and the mix can be dangerous.

  1. The HSP is prone to perfectionism.

    Here’s the reality that makes perfectionism and high sensitivity difficult to separate: HSPs are good at so many things!

    And their proficiency actually extends to giftedness. As a matter of fact, research has found that almost all gifted adults are also highly sensitive.

    So you have a person who is good at so many things, in part because she perceives so many layers of details. And she mentally analyzes them and makes creative connections between them and her life experiences and memories.

    And then she sets about applying them to her daily life. Naturally she will recognize mistakes and flaws and want to correct and improve upon them. After all, isn’t that what the gift of recognition is for? To become more aware, more knowledgeable, more accurate…more…perfect?

    The problem with the HSP’s perfectionism arises when it carries over into a belief that others expect it of her, too. And then what happens when “perfect” doesn’t happen? Can the HSP handle it? See it as a learning experience and move forward?

    Or does the absence of perfection equate to failure, and failure then to unworthiness?

  1. The HSP gets tired of being bullied and/or misunderstood.

    As I said earlier, we all have a breaking point.

    For the HSP, the world can feel very antagonistic when all the incoming sound bites are negative, judgmental, unaccommodating, or unappreciative. Even when the HSP has learned to manage high sensitivity and is able to interrupt the suicide ideation pathway, feeling misunderstood takes a toll.

    Remember that most deaths by suicide happen to those who suffer from mental disorders like depression. And HSPshave a high incidence of depression.

Perhaps it’s true that Highly Sensitive People have a higher risk of death by suicide. 

And perhaps it’s true that they are actually less likely to follow through with their ideation.

But even if the sensitivity that makes them vulnerable also makes them more thoughtful, cautious, and hesitant, one thing is undeniable: The Highly Sensitive Person is more likely to suffer the torments of depression and the relentlessness of an unquiet mind.

She will feel the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, even as she is painting them into her own Starry Night.

And she will passionately want to live because her sensitivity is an unclosable portal to beauty and meaning. 

But she may suffer quietly – within her mind that is never quiet – if the world doesn’t recognize and embrace her. If the world doesn’t wake up to the beauty and meaning it aches for and the few who bring them alive.

We must all learn to recognize the subtle cries for understanding, even as we tune ourselves into the loud cries for help.

Dr. Elayne Daniels is a psychologist, consultant, coach, and author specializing in working with Highly Sensitive People. She is passionate about helping HSPs to thrive!