What to Do When Someone You Know is Suicidal


Suicide isn’t a common topic of conversation. It usually only comes up after a high-profile celebrity takes his or her life. We wonder how something like this could happen seemingly without warning, but the discussion generally doesn’t move much beyond this. 

If you have lost someone in your life to death by suicide, or are someone who struggles with thoughts of suicide or have made attempts in the past, suicide awareness is not just something that comes up occasionally — it’s part of your every day. No matter how bleak or dark things might seem, every life is precious, so it’s crucial to know the signs and risks that indicate someone might be attempting suicide.

Prevalence and risk factors

The topic of suicide is often taboo in our social circles, as if it is something that is rare — even though it is more common than you might think. It is one of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. in 2016, and the second most common cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For women, the highest rate of suicide was between ages 45 and 54, and for men the highest rate was found among those 65 and older, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Other risk factors include:

  • Depression, substance abuse, or other mental disorders or a family history of these;
  • Chronic pain and other certain medical conditions;
  • A prior suicide attempt or a family history of suicide attempts;
  • Family violence;
  • Having firearms in the home (using a firearm is the leading method for those who commit suicide);
  • Having recently been released from prison or jail;
  • Being exposed to the suicidal behavior of others (family, friends, or even celebrities).

Signs and Symptoms

If a friend or family member is struggling with suicidal thoughts — or maybe you are, yourself — it’s important to recognize some of the common signs of distress for someone considering taking their life so that you know when to seek help: 

  • Expressing a wish to die, or verbalizing thoughts of death;
  • Expressing that they feel hopeless, trapped, or guilty;
  • Making a plan to end their life;
  • Withdrawing from others;
  • Using alcohol or drugs more often;
  • Mood swings;
  • Giving away possessions;
  • Saying goodbye to family members;
  • Putting affairs in order (such as writing a will);

Because many people feel uncomfortable talking about suicide, it is easy to misunderstand those who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, have made suicide attempts in the past, or have died by suicide. 

Individuals who experience suicidal thoughts are suffering and feel trapped by their pain. In fact, they feel so trapped and hopeless that they think death is the only way to escape that suffering. They are also likely to be coping with depression or another mental illness. 

It’s important to remember that depression and other mental illnesses are diseases, and that individuals are no more responsible for “getting over it” than someone who has a broken leg can “get over” a fractured bone. They are struggling with an illness and need professional treatment.

What to do

If a friend or family member shares with you that they have been experiencing suicidal thoughts, or if you have been experiencing thoughts of suicide, it is important to reach out for support and professional help. Some people are scared to ask if someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts because they don’t want to give them the idea, but that’s actually a myth — it is better to ask so that you can help them access the resources they need to remain safe. 

If you are in immediate crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK), which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to your nearest emergency room if you are in immediate danger of attempting suicide or have made an attempt. Many police stations will visit a person’s place of residence to conduct a “wellness check” if requested. And finally, psychotherapy has found to be an effective treatment for helping individuals manage their suicidal thoughts and make effective plans for healing and finding a way through their situation.

While this information may be overwhelming, it’s important to be aware of the risks of suicide as well as what to do if someone is experiencing these thoughts. And although it might feel uncomfortable to talk about it or bring it up to someone, the chance to get someone the help that they need to keep them safe is invaluable and worth so much more than the discomfort you may feel by bringing the topic up. 

It might be a difficult topic to introduce, but chances are, the person you are concerned about will see it as an expression of concern. The honesty you are willing to show might help them feel more understood and recognized. Don’t be afraid to start the conversation — you could be a lifesaver.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). All calls are free and confidential 24/7.

Understand the risks and symptoms when a friend is suicidal.

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