Suicide has devastating effects on family, friends, community and society. It can be prevented by identifying people at risk and connecting them to care. Prevention methods include identification tools such as screening and gatekeeper training; and intervention techniques such as means restriction, responsible media coverage and education.
Look out for dramatic changes in a person’s behavior or mood, especially following a loss or rejection. Warning signs may also include talking about or attempting suicide, and access to lethal weapons.
1. Know the Signs
A person who is at risk for suicide will show warning signs that you can recognize. These can be verbal or nonverbal, and are usually related to a painful event, loss or change. They might talk about death or suicide, search for ways to kill themselves online or try to access lethal means like guns and pills.
You might also notice they seem agitated or upset, and may make statements that suggest their life is meaningless. They might act differently than usual, or they might start to practice or prepare for suicide by cleaning up their rooms, visiting friends and family members, giving away their possessions or making a will.
People who commit suicide often have a combination of risk factors, including a mental health condition, substance abuse or other serious health issues, financial problems, legal problems or a traumatic event. Any mention of suicide should be taken seriously.
2. Talk to Someone
When someone is struggling, reaching out for help can save a life. A simple check-in — asking “Are you considering suicide?” — can make all the difference.
If they say yes, take them seriously. Don’t try to rationalize their feelings or tell them that what they’re feeling isn’t real or that they shouldn’t feel this way.
Instead, share what you’ve observed from their behavior and talk to them about the warning signs you’ve noticed. Ask if they have a safety plan and what it might include. It may be helpful to suggest that they connect with a mental health professional or therapist, particularly if they have not done so already. This step is especially important if they have access to items that could be used to hurt themselves.
3. Make a Safety Plan
A safety plan can be an invaluable tool when someone is feeling suicidal. It helps them remember the reasons they are living, distracts them from their thoughts and provides steps to take if a crisis occurs.
It is important that a person writing their own safety plan doesn’t do it alone, but with the help of a friend or family member (or even a professional). The plan should include people they can talk to when they are feeling suicidal, as well as emergency contact details for professionals.
The plan should also identify any potential means of suicide that can be removed, including reducing access to lethal items like firearms. The plan should be reviewed on a regular basis, and it should be updated when any of the contact people or coping strategies have been found to be ineffective (Berk & Clarke, 2019). When implemented properly, safety plans can become self-strengthening for individuals who experience recurring suicidal thoughts and crises.
4. Remove Potential Means
Providing immediate practical help—removing or locking up pills, razors, knives and firearms—may reduce suicide risk. However, these measures need to be combined with support and counseling.
People who have been exposed to bullying and who have a family history of suicidal behavior are at greater risk for suicide. Certain occupations and neighborhoods also have higher rates of suicide, including military personnel and those living in rural areas.
Resilience—the ability to cope with adversity and stay positive—is an important protective factor against suicide. Skills training and self-help tools are examples of ways to build resilience. Taking medication may also reduce the risk of suicide by lowering the levels of certain mood disorders or making them less toxic. The CDC recommends talking to your doctor before trying any new medications.
5. Stay Positive
Whether it’s reading horror-tinged headlines, worrying about the health of loved ones or thinking about financial woes, it’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts. But while it’s normal to feel pessimistic at times, if it becomes your default attitude, it can have serious health consequences, including increased risk of suicide.
Identifying people who are at risk and connecting them to care is one of the biggest ways to prevent suicide. This includes gatekeeper training, suicide screening and teaching warning signs.
Resilience, which is the ability to cope with adversity and bounce back from difficult situations, can also help prevent suicide. This can include skills training, mobile apps and self-help materials. It can also mean making sure you surround yourself with positive people and removing negativity from your life.