Open Accessibility Menu

How to Recognize and Respond to Suicide Warning Signs

Published in Behavioral Health Services, For the Health of It Author: Ann Jones,LP

What if I told you one death could be prevented every 40 seconds. Now what if I told you every year more than 800,000 people take their own life. Suicide is the second leading cause of those 15 to 29 years old and the fifth leading cause of death among those 30 to 49 years old. And according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, at least 90 percent of suicide victims were affected by some sort of mental disorder like depression, bipolar disorder or alcoholism.

These statistics are astounding to me. As a psychologist, my job is to help people, including people who have suicidal thoughts. A suicidal person may not ask for help, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want it. There are things you can do to help someone who might be considering suicide. Knowing the warning signs, taking them seriously and knowing how to respond are the first steps toward suicide prevention.

Would you recognize the signs of someone who is suicidal?

  • Talking about suicide. This may be very specific like “I want to kill myself.” Teens and children may be more likely to express suicidal thoughts unclearly. Listen for phrases like “I won’t be a problem for you much longer,” “I won’t see you again” or “it’s no use.”
  • Participating in self-destructive, violent or rebellious behavior like increased alcohol or drug use, reckless driving or taking other unnecessary risks
  • Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
  • Self-hatred and feelings of worthlessness
  • An unusual preoccupation with death
  • Seeking access to guns, knives, pills or other objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Getting affairs in order and saying goodbye. In youth, this may mean going through their room and giving their personal belongings away.
  • Withdrawing from others or social situations
  • A sudden sense of calm after depressive behavior

Teens contemplating suicide may also display other warning signs like problems with school work, poor grooming, physical complaints and a lack of interest in activities that used to be enjoyable.

If you believe someone you know may be suicidal, you can help. But how?

  1. Speak up. Talking to someone—young or old—about their suicidal thoughts can be a difficult thing to do, but if someone is expressing these thoughts, they need help. Sometimes the chance to talk about their feelings can provide them the outlet they need to seek help.
  2. Start the conversation by telling them you’ve been worried about them lately or that you’ve been meaning to check in with them because they haven’t seemed like themselves. Ask them in a direct compassionate way if they are thinking about suicide. Never argue with them, promise you won’t tell anyone or try to fix their problems.
  3. Listen to them. Gather facts to learn how long they’ve been feeling like that, what made them feel that way, how you can support them and if they’ve considered getting help.
  4. Show them you care. Ask what you can do to help and be there to support them.
  5. Try to get them professional help. Call a crisis line, encourage them to see a mental health professional or take them to a doctor’s appointment.
  6. Continue to support them. Stay in touch with them, drop by or call them to see how they’re doing. Your support can help them on their path to recovery.

If someone tells you they are thinking about suicide, always take them seriously and act quickly. Try to determine the level of immediate danger the person is in. Ask:

  • Do you have a suicide plan?
  • Do you have what you need to carry out the plan?
  • Do you know when you would do it?
  • Do you intend to commit suicide?

If they say yes to any of these questions, particularly if they indicate they intend to end their life, get help immediately. Call a local crisis center, a suicide hotline or 911 or take the person to an ER. Remove anything that could be lethal, but never leave the person alone.

If you think someone may be suicidal, the best thing you can do is speak up and try to get them help. It will probably be difficult and uncomfortable, but the sooner you can help someone who may be contemplating the idea of suicide, the better. You can help save someone’s life.