Suicide: How can we prevent it? 

September is #suicidepreventionmonth. You may have come across this hashtag on social media. But what does it mean for you?

Did you know that suicide is a serious public health concern? Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. In 2018, nearly 48,000 people died by suicide and another 10.7 million adults experienced suicidal thoughts.

Suicide is tragic and can be very hard to talk about, but it is often preventable if we know what to look for and how to engage in conversations about it. Suicide prevention month exists to shed some light on the topic by raising awareness, sharing resources with those who might need them, and normalizing conversations about suicide without stigma. I want to provide you with some tips on how to recognize and respond to signs of suicidal thoughts among your loved ones.

Risk Factors

There are several risk factors that can help us identify those in our lives that are more at-risk for suicide. This does not mean that people with one of these risk factors will attempt suicide. It is just something we should be aware of. Risk factors include:

-Previous suicide attempt

-Family history of suicide

-Significant life events that may be triggering, such as relationship problems, unemployment, history of child abuse, bullying, sexual abuse, or diagnosis of a chronic health condition

-Existing mental health struggles, particularly mood disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders

-Substance use or abuse

-Access to firearms

-Experience of discrimination, prejudice, isolation, and/or family rejection on the basis of sexuality among LGBTQ youth

Warning Signs

It is also important to know the warning signs of suicide. You might not think that someone is having thoughts of suicide because they aren’t openly talking about wanting to die or sharing feelings of hopelessness. However, it often is not this clear. Other warning signs of suicide include:

-Increased alcohol or drug use

-Aggressive, impulsive, or reckless behavior

-Withdrawal from family and friends

-Extreme mood swings

-Change in eating or sleeping habits

-Talking about being a burden to others or having great guilt/shame

-Giving away important possessions or putting affairs in order

What do I do?

So now that you know what to look for, what do you do if you identify someone in your life who is in emotional pain or having thoughts of suicide? Are you worried you may be caught off guard or afraid that you might not say the right things? This is normal, as you are probably not a mental health professional, but anyone can take these 5 simple steps of action to help.

  1. Ask: It might not be easy to ask someone if they are thinking about killing themselves, but, if done in a caring way, this often gives the person a sense of relief and does not cause any harm. Be sensitive, but direct. Here are some example questions: “How are you coping with what’s been happening in life?” “Are you thinking about hurting yourself?” “Are you thinking about suicide?” “Have you ever tried to harm yourself?”
  1. Keep them safe: Ask if this person has already thought of a plan. Consider questions like: Have you thought about how or when you’d do it? Do you have access to weapons or things that can be used as weapons to harm yourself? Help them out by removing lethal items or reducing access to potentially lethal places.
  2. Be there: Listen without judgement to what the person has to say. Allowing them a safe space to talk about what they are thinking and feeling may reduce depressed, anxious, and/or suicidal thoughts.
  3. Help them Connect: By creating a network of resources for support, you are helping this person take action. Save the national suicide prevention lifeline in their phone and offer to help them connect with a mental health professional and/or another friend or family member as soon as possible.
  4. Follow Up: Be sure to stay connected with the individual during and even after treatment. Let them know that you’re still there for them.

My hope is that this information will not only make you more aware of suicide and those in your life who may be dealing with suicidal thoughts, but that it will also make you more comfortable talking about suicide or reaching out to those you might be concerned about. I encourage you to do your part this month, and even after, to raise awareness about suicide and be there for those you love.

Ready for additional information? Here are some resources that might be helpful in learning more about suicide prevention and how you can get involved.