Preventing Suicide: Warning Signs That Can Save a Life

May 2020

Suicide awareness can save a life. And since suicide rates have increased by 31 percent since 2001, the ability to spot warning signs is of growing importance to help prevent suicide.

Yet despite our best intentions, it’s easy to miss or dismiss when a family, friend or colleague is in a level of despair that could lead them to self-harm or suicide. Here’s what you need to know to identify risk factors and effectively spot warning signs in those around you.

Who is at risk?

You might not realize that someone you know falls into a high-risk category. While suicide affects every demographic, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline find that some groups are at higher risk.

Among those ages 10 to 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death, with nearly 2 percent of those aged 18 to 25 attempting suicide in 2017, the highest percentage of any age group.

Men are nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than women, with the rate highest among men aged 65 and older. Among women who commit suicide, the rate was highest for those aged 45 to 54.

Of all races/ethnicity groups, Native American/Alaskan Native populations face the highest risk, followed by white non-Hispanic men and women.

Certain groups recovering from or facing emotional or physical trauma are also at higher risk, such as veterans, disaster survivors, members of the LGBTQ+ community and suicide attempt survivors. In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times higher than for non-veteran adults, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

What are the warning signs?

While some cases of suicide come as a complete shock to family and friends, oftentimes there are warning signs. Here’s what to look for in others, and even in yourself, according to NIMH and

Talking about or experiencing despair

When someone talks about wanting to die or ending their own life, it’s a clear signal they need help. But not everyone who attempts or dies by suicide discusses it so directly. Other verbal and emotional warning signs include:

  • Talking about or feeling shame or guilt
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having unbearable sadness or pain
  • Talking about feeling lonely or trapped or not fitting in
  • Talking about getting revenge
  • Worrying about being a burden to others

Changing behavior

Abrupt or extreme changes in someone’s usual behavior may signal a risk for suicide, such as:

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Exhibiting extreme mood swings
  • Acting recklessly, such as driving too fast or having unprotected sex
  • Withdrawing from friends and favorite social activities
  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Experiencing rage or violent tendencies
  • Being agitated or anxious

Planning ahead

Someone with suicidal thoughts may make preparations, including:

  • Giving away important or prized possessions
  • Writing or changing a will
  • Saying goodbye to family and friends
  • Researching ways to die

What can you do to help?

If you’re not sure what’s going on, ask. Asking someone if they’re considering self-harm doesn’t increase their chances of committing suicide, according to NIMH. It shows them you care and provides an opportunity to encourage them to seek professional help.

If you or someone you know is at risk of self-harm, it’s important to get help immediately. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. For the Veterans Crisis Line, call 1-800-272-8255 and press 1 or text 838255. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has additional resources for LGBTQ suicide prevention, such as the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386.

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