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Tips on How to Identify and Help Someone Who is Suicidal

LaToya Smith

  September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month   National Suicide Prevention Month is dedicated to raising awareness of the causes, warning signs, and most important, treatment options available for those at risk of suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.    “Suicidal thoughts or actions should not be ignored,” says LaToya Smith, PhD, a licensed counselor, and professor at Palo Alto University. “If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs, the tips below can help you better communicate with the individual and guide them in seeking the professional help they need.”    

Warning Signs of Suicide:

  According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), there are many signs that may signal that an individual is experiencing suicidal thoughts. Although some of these warning signs may not lead to a suicide attempt, it is best to be safe and help the individual obtain professional help. Some may show signs that are not listed here, however, here are a few warning signs of suicide risk.   An individual may talk about:
  • Wanting to die or kill themselves.
  • Feeling empty or hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Feeling trapped or that there are no solutions.
  • Feeling unbearable emotional or physical pain.
  • Being a burden to others.
  • Death or think about death often.
  They may also:
  • Withdraw from family and friends.
  • Give away important possessions.
  • Say goodbye to friends and family.
  • Put affairs in order, such as making a will.
  • Take great risks that could lead to death, such as driving extremely fast.
  • Look for ways to kill themselves, such as searching for lethal methods online, stockpiling pills, or buying a gun.
  • Use alcohol or drugs more often.
  • Show rage or talk about seeking revenge.
  Additional warning signs that are specific to youth include: 
  • Having a peer or friend who has died by suicide.
  • Having suffered a recent humiliation or embarrassment (e.g., bullying, breakup).
  • Exhibiting a decreased quality in schoolwork.

Ways to Help Someone Who is Depressed and Suicidal:

  1. Stay calm and talk to your friend or loved one. During this conversation, you may have many emotions that come up for you but it’s important that you stay calm, non-judgmental, and focused on the person you are supporting. Asking someone about suicide will not make them suicidal. In fact, this caring conversation may help them feel relieved and less isolated. It is important that you are direct and use the term suicide.    Here are some examples of how to ask someone if they are suicidal:   a. “I have been concerned about you lately. You haven’t seemed like yourself. Are you considering suicide?” b. “I saw your social media post and wanted to check on you. Are you having thoughts of wanting to die?” c. “You seem really (down/sad/angry/unhappy) lately. I’m worried that you might be thinking of hurting yourself or suicide. Can we talk about this?”   2. Acknowledge the individual’s feelings. Listen attentively to the individual concerns. Avoid minimizing or dismissing their concerns so they know you are taking them seriously. Remember to keep the conversation focused on them. It is important that they feel understood and heard. You can let the person know they’re not alone, that you care, and you want to support them to get help.    3. Help them stay safe. Ask the individual if they have a plan of how they would attempt suicide and remove or disable the lethal means (NIMH, 2021).    4. Seek professional support. It’s important that you don’t try to handle the situation alone. You want to encourage the individual to obtain professional help as soon as possible. You’ll want to ask if they have any current professional support (a healthcare professional and/or licensed mental health professional) and advise them to make an appointment. With their permission, you could call their provider and request to set up an appointment. In an emergency, it is best to call 911. If the individual is not trying to actively harm themselves, you can take them to the nearest emergency room (SAMHSA, 2021).    5. Connect. It can be helpful to check in on the individual after they have received care to see how they are doing. For some individuals, it may be helpful to have a support network of friends or family who can temporarily take them to appointments.    Resources:  
  • Call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for 24-hour confidential support. 
  • Text HELLO to 741741 for free and confidential support 24 hours a day throughout the U.S.
  • Veterans Crisis Line: Call 1-800-273-8255 (press “1”) or text 838255 for 24/7 support.
  • Disaster Distress Hotline: To receive immediate counseling, call 1-800-985-5990 to connect with a trained professional from the closest crisis counseling center within the network. People affected by any disaster or tragedy can call this helpline, which is sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 
Watch Preventing Suicide: The Warning Signs