Suicide is a complex public health issue. However, much can be done at the individual and community levels to prevent suicide.
It’s essential to recognize the warning signs and get help for people at risk. Anyone can offer support and help, especially gatekeepers such as friends, family members, teachers, military commanders or other authority figures.
Talking About It
Suicide is preventable, and talking about it can help. The first step is knowing the warning signs and talking to your friends. The next step is telling an adult-a parent, school counselor, teacher, coach or pastor. Do not make deals with your friend about keeping their suicidal thoughts and plans a secret-you must tell to save them!
Asking someone if they are thinking of suicide does not increase the chance that they will attempt it or “put the idea in their head.” Most people who are thinking about suicide are relieved when someone reaches out to them and wants to talk.
Often, there are many warning signs before a person makes an attempt. They may start skipping classes, getting poor grades or doing poorly in sports. They may begin acting out or be more irritable or angry. They may become preoccupied with death or suicide or be withdrawn and isolated. Many people who try to kill themselves do not have a known mental health condition, but they may be dealing with a life crisis such as a break-up or family conflict, substance use problems or a financial problem.
Suicide can be prevented, but it takes a concerted effort at the individual, family, community and national levels. Educating and training people in the warning signs of suicide can help prevent it. Identifying individuals at risk and connecting them to care is essential.
Look for dramatic changes in a person’s behavior. These can include withdrawing from friends, skipping school or classes, changing eating habits such as binge or restricting food, sleeping more or less than usual, disinterest in grooming or appearance, a change in mood from extreme sadness to calm and even happiness and increasing access to guns or other lethal objects.
It is okay to ask a person if they are thinking about suicide, especially if the behavior is new or has increased recently. Asking may reduce feelings of guilt or shame. Providing immediate care is critical, including removing access to highly lethal objects and getting them into treatment. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy can help a person improve mental wellness and resiliency.
Keeping a Safe Space
Suicide is preventable and it is important that we work together to create safe spaces where suicide can not happen. This involves teaching coping and problem-solving skills to people who are struggling, expanding options for temporary assistance and connecting people at risk to effective mental health care. It also means preventing access to lethal items, such as firearms and medications, by promoting safe storage practices and removing them from the home or community when possible.
It is vital that we ask those who are having thoughts of suicide if they have a plan and that we keep them safe. While it may not be easy, research shows that asking does not increase suicides or suicidal thoughts.
It is also important to know how to get help for someone who is having suicidal thoughts or feelings, including saving the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number in your phone so you can easily call if needed. Lastly, it is important to treat suicidal thoughts and behaviors directly using evidence-based treatments such as Cognitive Therapy for Suicide Prevention and Dialectical Behavior Therapy.
When someone has expressed suicidal thoughts and/or behavior, it’s important to take them seriously. Do not play it down or worry that you will strain your relationship with them — if they are at risk, their safety is the most important thing.
Talk with them about how they are feeling and encourage them to get help, if possible. Mental health treatment, like psychotherapy, can teach a person with suicide thoughts how to recognize and respond to their feelings and improve coping skills.
Reducing a person’s access to lethal means can decrease their suicidal ideation and suicide rates, according to the CDC. This may include removing firearms from their environment or providing information about safer ways to die. It can also involve fostering peer norms that support help-seeking and connecting them with care. The CDC’s Toolkit for Community-Based Suicide Prevention includes strategies for reducing barriers to care, such as gatekeeper training and suicide screening programs. Other strategies involve teaching coping skills, increasing access to safe spaces and supporting individuals after discharge from acute care.