Preventing suicide involves identifying people who are at risk, connecting them to care, and teaching them to recognize warning signs. Teachers and parents have a unique role to play in helping youth identify the warning signs.
Never keep a friend’s suicidal thoughts and/or plans a secret. Talk to a trusted adult (a parent, teacher, coach or pastor) about your concerns.
1. Know the Signs
Suicide is preventable, but a person must get help right away to overcome the depression that leads to it. You can recognize the signs of suicide in your friends and loved ones by paying attention to their behavior. These may include:
Talking about or planning suicide. Acting irritable, anxious or angry. Acting recklessly or in a way that shows they are struggling to cope with life. Showing rage or seeking revenge. Talking about feeling hopeless and trapped. Increasing use of alcohol or drugs. Having lethal means in their home, such as pills or a gun.
People who are thinking about suicide may also make changes in their appearance, such as a sudden weight loss or change in dressing habits. They may stop going to school or work. They might withdraw from family and friends or spend more time alone. They might have sleep problems or be unable to concentrate in school, work or other activities.
2. Know the Risk Factors
Suicide is rarely caused by a single circumstance or event, but rather a combination of risk factors. These can include a person’s genetics, their mental or physical health, their environment and access to lethal means (like weapons).
Increasing a person’s feeling of connectedness to others, limiting their isolation, and lowering their burdensomeness has been shown to be protective against suicide. In addition, it can help to keep them away from substances like alcohol and drugs, as these can actually increase depression symptoms and decrease a person’s inhibitions, making them more likely to act on their thoughts of suicide.
Some risk factors can’t be changed, such as a person’s family history of suicide or their genetics, but some can be modified, such as taking anti-depressant medication and getting enough sleep. It’s also important to remove a person’s access to the lethal means, such as locking up weapons or taking pills out of reach. Lastly, follow up with people who are at risk for suicide, as this has been shown to reduce their chances of acting on their thoughts and plans.
3. Know the Resources
There are many resources available to help prevent suicide. NIMH is a great source of information and statistics about suicide, as well as providing education and training for professionals. AFSP is another nonprofit organization that funds research and provides educational programs and resources for professionals and survivors of suicide loss. They also advocate and track national policies related to suicide prevention.
Talking about suicide openly and honestly decreases stigma, encourages others to seek help and can save lives. Download Language Matters: Talking About Suicide (PDF) for more information about how to talk about suicide in a safe way.
People with thoughts of suicide are often relieved when they tell someone about their feelings and plans. Never keep a friend’s suicidal thoughts and attempts a secret. Even if you feel afraid to “tattle” on them, most at-risk teens and young adults will be grateful that you did!
4. Ask for Help
During the first conversation with someone who is thinking of suicide, you should be open to discussing their symptoms and ask about their thoughts. Remember, asking about suicidal thoughts doesn’t trigger them or encourage them to take action – it can actually help.
Keep the conversation going by checking in with them regularly. This can be done via phone, text or email and can be a great way to make sure they are safe and connected with the resources they need.
Encourage them to talk with a mental health professional or call a hotline for support. You should also try to reduce their access to lethal items, if possible. If they are in immediate danger, it is important to get them escorted to an emergency department or crisis centre. Asking directly about their thoughts and providing them with resources in a nonjudgmental, sensitive and discreet manner can make a huge difference. This can prevent suicide from occurring by reversing the negative spiral that leads to the point of no return.