Suicide: Risks, Warning Signs & How to Help
As the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S., suicide is a very serious public health issue – and it's even more concerning now as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic take a toll on the nation's mental health.
It can be very scary and upsetting when someone you care about appears suicidal. Understanding the risk factors that may make someone more prone to suicide – as well as the warning signs that may indicate they're actually considering going through with a suicide attempt – can leave you more prepared to get someone the help they need.
Suicide Risk Factors
There are factors that may make a person more at risk for suicidal thoughts, also called suicidal ideation. Someone may be at an increased risk if they:
- Have a history of mental health issues, including clinical depression
- Have a history of drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Have experienced a recent devastating loss
- Were mistreated as a child
- Have a family history of suicide
- Have easy access to firearms or other deadly weapons
- Have attempted suicide previously
Keep in mind that someone considering suicide may also have no known risk factors so go with your gut if you notice any signs that make you feel that someone you love may be suicidal.
Suicide Warning Signs
These signs indicate a person may be struggling with their mental health, which can lead to possible suicide:
- Social withdrawal/isolation from friends and family
- An increase in alcohol and drug use
- A noticeable change in daily routines, like not eating, sleeping or going to work
- Aggressive, impulsive or reckless behavior
- Uncharacteristic or dramatic mood swings
These signs may mean a person is making concrete plans to attempt suicide in the near future and require immediate intervention:
- Hoarding large quantities of pills
- Acquiring a deadly weapon
- Working to "tie up loose ends" – for example, saying goodbye to friends and family, paying off debts, giving away prized possessions or talking about funeral arrangements
- Expressing suicidal feelings, like saying "I wish I had never been born" or "It would be so much easier if I weren't alive anymore"
How to Help
A suicide-related crisis can be very scary for family and friends. If you suspect that someone you care about is contemplating suicide, immediately or in the near future, it is often difficult to know what to do.
Helping a person who may be suicidal is a complex issue, even for healthcare professionals experienced in these situations. But the one thing you can do as a caring family member or friend is to try to get the person the professional help they need.
Have a conversation with the person and try to encourage them to seek help. Be supportive, stay calm and don't add your own bias into the conversation. It's okay to ask direct questions like “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” or “Do you already have a plan for how you would do it?” Asking about suicidal thoughts won't make someone do something self-destructive. Studies show that giving people the opportunity to discuss their feelings may reduce the risk they'll act on suicidal thoughts.
Offer to help the person find a mental health professional to talk to – or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 988 or text VT to 741741 for them and stay with them while they are on the phone. If you believe a crisis is imminent or you find someone in the midst of a suicide attempt, call 911.
A great place for resources is Facing Suicide VT, a statewide prevention initiative supported by the Vermont Department of Health and Department of Mental Health.
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