Preventing suicide involves efforts at the individual, family and community level. This includes gatekeeper training, screening for suicide risk and reducing access to lethal means like guns.
People at the highest risk of suicide often say they are thinking about it or have made a plan. It’s important to take these statements seriously and to respond with empathy and help.
1. Know the Warning Signs
Although not everyone who talks about suicide will end their life, you must take any threat of suicide seriously. You should listen and be supportive without judging, and encourage your friend to talk about how they are feeling.
Some warning signs include a change in behavior, giving away cherished possessions and searching online for ways to kill oneself. If a person is showing any of these behaviors, it’s important to call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (988) or speak with a mental health professional right away.
People who are at the highest risk for suicide are those with a combination of the above risk factors. These include people who have attempted suicide before, those who live with a history of depression or mental illness, those who are living in unstable housing or who have witnessed violence or experienced other traumatic events, and those who have recently lost someone close to them. These individuals are particularly prone to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, which can lead to a suicide attempt or re-exploration of their thoughts around self-harm.
2. Know the Risk Factors
Suicide is linked to a number of risk factors, which increase the chances that someone will consider suicide or attempt it. These include mental health diagnoses, a history of a suicide attempt, a history of violence or abuse, alcohol and substance use, and other high-risk behaviors.
People who are experiencing conflict, disaster, or violence and those who feel isolated from society have a higher risk of suicide than others. Those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender and those who live in communities that are not accepting of their orientation have also been shown to be at greater risk.
On the other hand, there are protective factors that decrease a person’s risk of suicide. These include having a support system, a religious connection, and having skills that help people cope with stressors. It is important to recognize both risk and protective factors in order to make prevention efforts more effective. Increasing knowledge about risk and protective factors will help prevent suicide, including among those who are not in mental health care.
3. Talk to Someone
When someone you know is talking about suicide, or even threatening it, it’s important to ask them directly what’s going on. It’s also important to listen and to take their feelings seriously. It is not your job to try to convince them of the value of life or to debate why they should stay alive – that can only make them feel defensive.
If the person indicates they are at immediate risk of hurting themselves, especially if they talk about how they would kill themselves and have a specific plan, you must get help for them right away. This may involve escorting them to a hospital, or calling 911.
It’s also a good idea to talk with the person and work together to develop a safety plan that includes a list of people they can contact for help and support during a crisis (only include those who are willing, able, and appropriate to be involved). This could also include reducing access to lethal means and helping them find treatment options by researching options and reviewing insurance benefits.
4. Get Help
For people at risk of suicide, getting help quickly is vital. Everyone can play a role in suicide prevention: Teachers, parents, friends and family members can be aware of warning signs and connect those at risk with professional support. A public health approach to suicide prevention focuses on teaching coping and problem-solving skills, expanding options for temporary assistance and connecting people with effective mental and physical health care.
Talking about suicide in a safe and compassionate way can decrease stigma. Download Language Matters: Talking About Suicide (PDF) for tips on talking about suicide in a nonthreatening and supportive way. Anyone can be a gatekeeper for those at risk, helping them stay safe by reducing access to lethal means such as firearms or medication and staying in contact with them to provide support and reassurance. Getting help from a crisis line or mental health professional can also save lives by providing advice, referrals and support. It is important to remember that a person who has thoughts of suicide may not want to live anymore, but they will still need help to recover from a suicide attempt or death.