Recognize the Warning Signs of Suicide
The best way to minimize the risk of suicide is to know the risk factors and to recognize the warning signs of suicide. Take these signs seriously. Know how to respond to them. It could save someone’s life.
How Prevalent Is Suicide?
Suicide is a potentially preventable public health problem. In 2009, the last year for which statistics are available, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. That year, there were nearly 37,000 suicides, and 1 million people attempted suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Men take their lives nearly four times the rate of women, accounting for 79% of suicides in the U.S.
Are There Risk Factors for Suicide?
Risk factors for suicide vary by age, gender, and ethnic group. And risk factors often occur in combinations.
Over 90% of people who die by suicide have clinical depression or another diagnosable mental disorder. Many times, people who die by suicide have an alcohol or substance abuse problem. Often they have that problem in combination with other mental disorders.
Adverse or traumatic life events in combination with other risk factors, such as clinical depression, may lead to suicide. But suicide and suicidal behavior are never normal responses to stress.
Other risk factors for suicide include:
- One or more prior suicide attempts
- Family history of mental disorder or substance abuse
- Family history of suicide
- Family violence
- Physical or sexual abuse
- Keeping firearms in the home
- Chronic physical illness, including chronic pain
- Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others
Are There Warning Signs of Suicide?
Warning signs that someone may be thinking about or planning to commit suicide include:
- Always talking or thinking about death
- Clinical depression — deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating — that gets worse
- Having a “death wish,” tempting fate by taking risks that could lead to death, such as driving fast or running red lights
- Losing interest in things one used to care about
- Making comments about being hopeless, helpless, or worthless
- Putting affairs in order, tying up loose ends, changing a will
- Saying things like “it would be better if I wasn’t here” or “I want out”
- Sudden, unexpected switch from being very sad to being very calm or appearing to be happy
- Talking about suicide or killing one’s self
- Visiting or calling people to say goodbye
Be especially concerned if a person is exhibiting any of these warning signs and has attempted suicide in the past. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, between 20% and 50% of people who commit suicide have had a previous attempt.
What Should I Do if Someone I Know Shows Warning Signs of Suicide?
First, if someone you know appears to be depressed and is contemplating suicide, take that person seriously. Listen to what he or she is saying. Take the initiative to ask that person what he or she is planning. But don’t attempt to argue him or her out of committing suicide. Rather, let the person know that you care and understand and are listening. Avoid statements like: “You have so much to live for.”
If someone you know appears to be depressed and talks about suicide, makes a suicidal gesture, or attempts suicide, take it as a serious emergency. Listen to the person, but don’t try to argue with him or her. Seek immediate help from a health care professional.
Depressed people are often suicidal. It is a key symptom of the disease. Some studies show that the neurotransmitter serotonin plays a central role in the neurobiology of suicide. Researchers have found lower levels of serotonin in the brainstem and cerebrospinal fluid of suicidal individuals.
In addition, suicidal behavior sometimes runs in families. Remember, any talk of suicide is always an emergency. Have the person talk with a health care professional immediately.
Where Can I Get Help for Suicide and Depression?
Encourage a suicidal or depressed person to seek the help of a mental health professional. Because the person may feel so hopeless that they may not think it’s possible to be helped, you’ll probably have to be persistent and go with that person.
If your loved one appears to be in imminent danger of committing suicide, do not leave him or her alone. Remove any weapons or drugs he or she could use. Accompany him or her to the nearest emergency room or call 911.
During treatment, be supportive. Help the person remember to take antidepressants or other prescribed medications and to continue any other therapy that’s been prescribed.