Preventing Suicide

Preventing suicide starts with knowing the warning signs. Parents and teachers are often the first to notice dramatic changes. They can include withdrawing from friends, skipping classes or school, sleep loss, sudden weight gain or loss, disinterest in hygiene and dressing up, and a sudden interest in guns or other weapons.

1. Know the Warning Signs

There is no single cause for suicide, but many people who attempt it have experienced or seen someone close to them experience serious and persistent depression; other mental health problems, including mood disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; or they are struggling with alcohol and drug abuse (substance use disorders). They may also have a history of physical or emotional trauma or loss and often have a family history of death by suicide.

Children and teens can show different warning signs, especially during major life changes, such as a divorce or the death of a loved one, which can trigger suicidal thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. Their risk for suicide may also increase when they feel overmatched by external pressures or their own mental, physical and emotional challenges.

You should always take any mention of suicidal thoughts or self-harm seriously, no matter how casual it might seem. Signs to look for include a prolonged period of sadness or moodiness, sudden calmness, and withdrawing from friends and family. Other warning signs can include looking for or practicing ways to kill yourself, such as searching online for a gun or pills.

2. Make a Safety Plan

The purpose of a safety plan is to give individuals who experience suicidal feelings and impulses a set of steps they can use in the moment to keep themselves safe. It’s similar to having a mental health first aid kit.

This may include internal coping strategies, like distraction techniques or calming activities, crisis contacts and resources (like therapists’ phone numbers or hotlines), and steps to make the environment safer by removing potential means of suicide from the home.

It’s important that a person co-develops their safety plan with their therapist or, if they are a minor, a parent. Very Well Mind reports that a safety plan typically includes “things a client can do on their own to maintain their safety, people they can call for help, and places they can go if they can’t get to their therapists’ offices.” The safety plan is then documented in the person’s health records. It is reviewed regularly to ensure it is up-to-date.

3. Remove Potential Means of Suicide

When a person who is at risk of suicide has easy access to lethal means, such as firearms, drugs, or chemicals, they are more likely to die by suicide. Reducing a person’s ability to kill themselves is one of the few effective suicide prevention strategies for which there is some evidence. Removing firearms, distributing gun safety locks, changing medication packaging, and installing barriers on bridges have all been associated with decreased suicide rates. Studies have also shown that “method substitution” rarely happens when means are restricted.

People who are at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior include those with a history of mental illness, people who have lost someone to suicide, and people from marginalized communities such as the LGBTQ community, women, and people of color. Everyone can help prevent suicide by being available to those in need, asking if they are thinking about it, and removing any potential weapons or tools for self-harm if possible without endangering yourself.

4. Get Help

It’s important to get help for a person who is suicidal or at risk for suicide. This could include a suicide hotline, mental health professionals, support groups for those who have survived suicide and/or attempts, or other resources.

Talking about suicide, or simply being there for someone with thoughts of suicide, can also be helpful. It is important to remember that asking if someone is thinking of suicide won’t push them toward it and that direct questions can be a good way to find out more about their thoughts.

Dramatic changes in behavior (like skipping classes, getting poor grades, acting out, withdrawing from friends), a sudden interest in guns or drugs, increased access to lethal means of suicide can also be warning signs.

The CDC recommends that all youth be screened for suicide risk through the Bright Futures Program, a free universal screen that most private health insurance plans cover. Also, reducing stigma and taboo around mental illness is another key to helping prevent suicide.