Suicide: Warning signs, risk factors, prevention, and help
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Written bytherapist.com team
Last updated: 05/26/2023
Get Help Now
If you are thinking about ending your life, help is available now. You are not alone. Call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, 24/7, confidential help. You can also chat online or text HOME to 741741 to speak with a crisis counselor.
What Is Suicide?
Suicide occurs when a person intentionally causes their own death. When a person takes action to end their life but does not die, it is known as a suicide attempt. If a person is contemplating, thinking about, or planning suicide, but has not taken action, it is known as suicidal ideation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the tenth leading cause of death among all ages, races, and sexes in the United States. However, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10–34. Approximately 48,000 people died by suicide in the United States in 2019.
Who Is at Risk for Suicide?
People from all walks of life die by suicide. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, privileged or oppressed—suicide is a tragedy that can happen to anyone.
However, not everyone has the same risk for suicide. Certain factors may increase rates of suicide for certain groups, such as:
- Mental illness: Depression, anxiety, addiction, and certain personality or mood disorders may increase a person’s risk for suicide, particularly if a person’s mental illness is untreated or undiagnosed.
- Chronic pain: Ongoing physical, mental, or emotional pain is a risk factor for suicide.
- Trauma: Trauma may increase a person’s risk for mental illness or exacerbate an existing condition, leading to an increased risk for suicide.
- Abuse: Physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse are traumatic. Abuse or bullying may lead to an increased suicide risk.
- Social isolation: Loneliness and disconnection have been associated with an increased risk of suicide.
- Family history: If someone in your family has struggled with mental illness, attempted suicide, or died by suicide, you may be at a greater risk.
- Suicide contagion: Exposure to suicide through family, peers, or the media is known as suicide contagion, which has been shown to increase people’s risk of suicide.
- Discrimination and oppression: Being discriminated against or oppressed because of your race, gender, sexuality, class, age, religion, ability, or identity can increase your risk for suicide. Keep in mind that discriminated groups carry a higher risk for suicide specifically because they are marginalized and oppressed, not because there is anything inherently wrong with them.
- Access to guns: According to Harvard University, “Every study that has examined the issue to date has found that within the U.S., access to firearms is associated with increased suicide risk.”
- Previous self-harm/suicide attempts: A history of intentionally injuring oneself or attempting to end one’s life increases a person’s risk for suicide.
Suicide Warning Signs
Because suicide can happen to anyone, it’s important to know the warning signs so you can seek help for yourself or encourage someone else to seek help. Common warning signs include:
- Talking about death in general or ending your life specifically
- Feeling hopeless or desperate
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Thinking about suicide or making a plan (suicidal ideation)
- Engaging in impulsive or reckless behavior
- Increasingly abusing substances
- Feeling like a burden
- Feeling increased guilt or shame
- Experiencing extreme mood swings
- Buying lethal items, such as guns, other weapons, or pills
- Giving away personal possessions
- Tying up loose ends, like paying off debt or making a will
- Saying goodbye
What to Do If Someone You Know Is Suicidal
If a friend, family member, or loved one exhibits some or most of the warning signs listed above, there are steps you can take to help them stay safe.
1. Ask Them Directly
Asking someone directly if they are thinking about suicide does not encourage suicide. It also does not give the idea of suicide to someone who was not contemplating it in the first place. Instead, asking someone directly if they are thinking about hurting themselves is often the best way to invite an honest answer.
If someone tells you they are suicidal, it’s important to listen to them nonjudgmentally. Let them share with you the emotions they’re struggling with and the problems they’re facing.
It can be frightening when someone shares that they are thinking about suicide. You may be tempted to downplay their problems or to guilt or shame them into seeking help. However, fear, guilt, shame, and gaslighting aren’t effective suicide prevention tools. Love, support, and encouragement are.
3. Encourage Them to Get Help
Part of your loving, supportive response should be encouraging your friend to get professional help. You cannot “convince” your friend not to commit suicide or “cure” them of their suicidal ideation on your own. For your sake and theirs, you should encourage your friend to seek professional treatment.
There are many options for professional help for suicide, depending on the severity and urgency of your friend’s case:
- Professional therapy: If your friend is not in an immediate crisis, then you may want to encourage them to seek professional help through therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can help people who may be contemplating suicide.
- Medication: Make sure your friend is taking any and all medications that have been prescribed to them. A psychiatrist may be able to prescribe additional medication to address their symptoms of depression.
- Hotlines: Crisis hotlines are effective interventions for crises that are happening right now. If your friend is overwhelmed or in crisis, encourage them to call, text, or chat with a crisis counselor.
- Hospitalization: If your friend is actively contemplating or taking steps to harm their body, endanger their life, or endanger the lives of others, call 911 and get help now. Hospitalization may be necessary.
4. Get Help If They Are in Immediate Danger
If your friend is in immediate danger, you can and should get help on their behalf. Do not promise to keep your friend’s plans for suicide a secret. Call 911 immediately so they can receive the help they need.
What to Do If You’re Thinking About Suicide
It is okay to admit that you are thinking about suicide. Many scary, overwhelming feelings and circumstances can bring people to a place where they consider ending their own life. You are not “going crazy” or “broken beyond repair.” You just may believe this is the only way to feel better.
The truth is that you can feel better without ending your life. You are not alone. Help is available now. Hope is real, and healing is possible.
1. Tell Someone
One of the easiest steps you can take is to tell a trusted friend or family member what you are feeling and thinking. Share your story. Sometimes, it’s easier to find and accept help if it’s coming from someone else, especially someone you love and trust.
2. Seek Professional Help
Professional help is often necessary for people who may be contemplating suicide. Click here to find a therapist near you.
3. Get Help Now
Remember, if you are in crisis, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free, 24/7, confidential help. You can also chat online or text HOME to 741741 to speak with a crisis counselor.
About the author
The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.
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