Suicide claims the lives of over 47,500 people every year in the United States. When a person dies by suicide, it affects family, friends, and communities, leaving them lost, confused, and in some cases, feeling responsible for their death.
“Death by suicide” means intentionally ending your own life. It’s often a way for people who are suffering to escape their pain when they feel like there are no solutions to their problems and have lost hope of getting better. Many people think about suicide. In 2019, there was an estimated 1.38 million suicide attempts in the United States. A suicide attempt is when someone harms themselves with the intent to take their life, but they do not die.
Because suicide affects all genders, ages, and ethnicities, knowing the risk factors and being aware of the warning signs can help you identify if someone is having thoughts about suicide and what steps you can take to prevent it.
What Are the Risk Factors for Suicide?
Suicide typically occurs when external stressors, like financial or relationship instability, and health obstacles, like a chronic illness or major surgery, create a sense of hopelessness and despair. Mental health conditions such as depression, eating disorders, psychosis, and substance abuse disorders are the most common associated with suicide. When these illnesses are left untreated, it increases the risk of suicide.
Some other risk factors for suicide can include:
- History of trauma or abuse
- Family history of suicide
- Lack of social support
- Lack of access to health care
- Cultural and religious beliefs
- Communities like veterans and LGBTQ
Every person is different, so risk factors will vary from person to person. Some may have a greater impact than others.
What Are the Warning Signs for Suicide?
Suicide if often sudden and unexpected so it’s important to know and look out for warning signs in your loved ones. Specific changes in behavior, mood, and conversation can be signals that someone you know may be suicidal.
1. Changes in Behavior
A change in behavior or adopting entirely new behaviors is usually the first warning sign of someone who may have suicidal ideation. When someone is feeling suicidal, they will often exhibit these changes in behavior to hide how they are really feeling. This is especially common if someone has experienced a painful event, loss, or major change. Behaviors to be on the lookout for include:
- Increased smoking, alcohol, or drug use
- Withdrawing from activities
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Giving away things they own
2. Changes in Mood
The second warning sign of a person having suicidal thoughts is a change in mood. Among all successful suicides, over half of them are by people who have a mood disorder, like bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. However, someone doesn’t need to be clinically diagnosed with a mental illness to be at risk for suicide. If someone is suicidal, you will often notice the following changes in mood:
- Humiliation and shame
- Agitation and anger
- Sudden highs and lows
3. Changes in Conversation
When someone is experiencing depression, PTSD, or other mental illness, their range of pitch and volume drop. This means they will often speak in lower, flatter, and softer tones. Speech can also sound labored as if they are out of breath and may use more pauses, starts, and stops. Too much tension or vocal orders that are too relaxed can also make speech sound strained or breathy. Research shows that the way someone speaks can be a key indicator of suicide risk.
In addition to the “how,” the “what” is equally as important and can be a little more noticeable. Some things a person who is suicidal might start talking about are:
- Dying or wanting to die
- Feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
- Feeling guilty or shameful
- Saying goodbye to friends and family
- Being a burden to others
- Having no reason to live
What Should You Do If You See Warning Signs of Suicide?
When you are more aware of the warning signs for suicide, it’s easier to know when to get help. If you start to see any of these signs in someone you know, there are a few steps you can take to help them depending on the intensity and frequency of their signals.
First, if someone is threatening suicide, talking about a specific plan, posting about death on social media, or seeking lethal means, it’s important to call 911 or your local emergency service and get help right away. As long as you feel safe, stay with them, and don’t leave them alone. If you feel it is unsafe for you to stay with the person who is threatening suicide, you can try to have them stay on the phone with emergency services until someone arrives.
If it’s not an immediate situation, but you notice signs of suicide, have a conversation with them about it. Talk to them in private by expressing your concerns using I statements and listening with compassion and without judgment. Usually, people will try to avoid the topic or talk in circles so be as direct as possible and reiterate your concern for their well-being.
In addition to directly asking them if they are suicidal, suggest professional help and offer options to make it easier to seek treatment. Some ways you can help someone get help include:
- Providing them with a suicide hotline number
- Researching treatment providers for them, like a therapist or religious counselor
- Speaking to others on their behalf
- Helping them develop a safety plan
- Removing access to lethal means, like firearms or medications
- Asking how you can help
After you’ve connected with someone about their thoughts of suicide, make sure to follow-up with them to see how they are feeling. Leaving a message or sending a text can show that you genuinely care about them, their safety and increases feelings of connectedness. Research has shown a reduction in deaths by suicide when a follow-up was involved and that supportive contact is an important part of suicide prevention.
Suicide is a rapidly growing problem and is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. By knowing the risk factors, being on the lookout for warning signs of suicide, and taking steps to help someone who is suicidal, you can help create hope for a future without suicide.
You Are Not Alone
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation, know you are not alone. There are over 500 members at PLM who report experiencing thoughts about suicide. Join the conversation today and connect with others who understand what you are going through.