Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. In 2007, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, suicide resulted in nearly 36,000 deaths. Suicide is preventable, but its prevention often requires the intervention of caring friends and family who recognize the signs and act on them immediately. Unfortunately, the signs are often misinterpreted or even outright ignored in the hopes that they will go away. It’s important to know the warning signs that someone is suicidal, and even more important to know what to do when a friend or family member exhibits these signs. Quick action can prevent the loss of life and help your loved ones get the help they needs to recover from the mental illness or life circumstances that have brought them to the brink of ending their life.
Risk factors for suicide
The most common risk factor for suicide is mental illness, often combined with a substance-abuse disorder. In fact, more than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have some combination of mental illness and substance abuse factors. Other risk factors include:
- A family history of mental illness or substance abuse
- A family history of suicide
- Family violence, including mental, physical and sexual abuse
- A prior suicide attempt
While many people have these risk factors, suicide and thoughts of suicide are not normal responses to these stresses. If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, it’s imperative that you take action.
Warning signs of suicide
The most common warning signs of suicide are talking about death and suicide, or talking about going away. Other warning signs include:
- Talking about feelings of guilt or hopelessness
- Turning away from friends and family
- Losing the motivation to leave the house
- Losing the desire to participate in activities that used to bring happiness
- Having trouble thinking clearly and concentrating
- Showing changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Engaging in dangerous or self-destructive behavior
If your friend is going through a particularly hard time, such as the death of someone close or the end of a relationship, and shows any of the warning signs, your friend may be at a heightened risk for suicide–especially if there is a history of depression, anxiety or other common mental disorders.
What you should do
There are several ways you can intervene in your friend or family member’s life to ensure her safety and to help her get the help she needs.
Sometimes it’s hard to bring up the subject of suicide to someone we think may be contemplating it. Maybe we’re afraid of planting the idea of suicide in their head, or maybe we’re afraid of what we’ll hear. But it’s important to talk to your friend about the feelings they’re having. You might say something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been talking about dying a lot lately. Are you having thoughts about killing yourself?” Being direct is an effective way to open the door to allow your friend to talk about what’s on his or her mind. Talking to your friend about his feelings will help him realize you care, and can help him feel less alone and isolated in his situation. It opens the door for you to help your friend get the help he needs.
Listen to your friend talk without judging her. Listen to what she says, and be supportive and understanding. Reassure her that you care, and that help is available to get her through this rough time.
If your friend is suicidal, get help. Don’t leave him alone. If there are firearms in the house, try to remove access to them. Encourage your friend to call his doctor immediately, or to go to the emergency room for help. If he refuses, and you feel your friend is in danger, call 911. You may feel like you’re intruding on his rights or wishes, but professional help is essential to prevent your friend from going through with the decision to end his life.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a confidential service available to anyone who is having suicidal thoughts or who is concerned about someone who may be suicidal. Call 1-800-273-TALK for 24-hour assistance.
Kathryn Maguire is blogger and writer for organizations such as PRA, providing professional training and stepping stones to recovery training program for health providers.