Preventing Suicide

Suicide is a preventable public health problem. It’s important to learn about warning signs and risk factors, as well as how to get help for yourself or someone you know.

Never keep suicidal thoughts or plans a secret. Talk to a trusted adult, like a parent, teacher or counselor.

1. Identifying People at Risk

When someone you know displays warning signs, it’s important to take them seriously. Often, people at risk don’t threaten suicide openly but make risk-taking behaviors like buying weapons or drugs with the intention of harming themselves. People who have a history of substance misuse or mental health issues are at higher risk of suicide. People who live in rural areas or work in certain industries are also at greater risk. People from marginalized communities – including members of the LGBTQ+ community and veterans – may also have increased rates of suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Screening for suicide is most effective when it is a part of a larger, integrated public health approach that includes education on warning signs and reducing access to lethal means. Everyone can play a role, from teaching coping skills to identifying at-risk individuals and connecting them to care. It’s also important to reduce access to lethal items by removing them from homes and workplaces.

2. Reducing Access to Lethal Means

The time between when someone decides to take their life and when they actually try is short – often less than an hour. Reducing access to lethal means can help people who are at risk stay safe and save lives.

Means reduction can be done on both a population and an individual level. The population approach, sometimes called “means restriction” is one of the most effective strategies in reducing suicide rates. This has been seen in many countries with decreases in overall suicide rates following reduction of the availability of particular means (eg, removal of firearms from homes, changes to domestic cooking gas to remove carbon monoxide, barriers at jumping sites and limited packaging on drugs such as SSRIs).

Individual level means reduction can be accomplished by safety planning with high-risk people and their family/friends. This involves a discussion with a suicidal person about how to safely store or limit access to potentially lethal methods of suicide and connecting them to care.

3. Identifying Survivors

While suicide is often a personal tragedy, it can also be an opportunity to learn from the experiences of those who have survived. Cornell researchers recently published one of the first studies to explore lessons from survivors — people who, in spite of the desire to end their lives, found ways to cope and reasons to live.

Suicide prevention efforts must go beyond screening and gatekeeper training to include broader community interventions. This can include improving housing, job opportunities and access to mental health care professionals and prescription medications. It can also involve social factors like improving community cohesion, reducing stigma and promoting positive media coverage of suicide.

If someone you know shows major warning signs of suicide – talking or writing about killing themselves, obtaining weapons, drugs or other lethal means – call your country’s emergency services number or take them to the hospital immediately. Try to stay in touch and keep offering support even after the immediate crisis has passed, periodically calling or dropping by.

4. Providing Support

A person who is at risk of suicide can be helped by a variety of approaches at the individual, systems and community level. Increasing a person’s connectedness through relationships and limiting isolation has been shown to be protective against suicide. Other effective strategies include teaching coping and problem-solving skills, gatekeeper training, and means restriction (e.g., gun safety laws).

One of the most important ways to help someone who is at risk for suicide is to be present. This could mean being physically present, speaking to them on the phone, or sending them a message through an app such as Stay Alive. Removing lethal means of self-harm from a person’s home can also be effective.

Talking about suicide in a nonthreatening and factual way decreases stigma and allows people to open up. Learn more about how to talk about suicide with someone at risk in our guide, Language Matters: Talking About Suicide in a Safe and Caring Way.