Preventing suicide is a complex task. It requires action at the individual, system and community levels. Strategies proven effective include means restriction, responsible media coverage and gatekeeper training.
It is important to educate everyone, particularly parents and teachers, on warning signs of a mental health crisis. This can encourage help-seeking behavior.
1. Know the Warning Signs
Suicide is a very complex issue and the risk factors can vary greatly from one person to the next. People who have a history of suicide in their families, a mental health condition or substance abuse are at a greater risk than others. They are also more likely to attempt suicide if they have access to lethal means, such as guns or pills.
People who are considering suicide might show signs of depression or mood swings, or they may become withdrawn and start staying home more often. They might talk about wanting to die, express rage or be in search of revenge, display reckless behaviors, sleep too little or too much. They might also have a sudden calmness or improvement in their mental state after expressing suicidal thoughts.
People at risk might seem like their usual selves in the weeks or days before an attempt, but they might exhibit changes that are out of character for them. These could include practicing for suicide or displaying unusual behavior with weapons or medications.
2. Know the Risk Factors
Suicide is a risk factor for anyone, but especially for people with mental illness. Contributory factors include a sense of hopelessness, cultural and religious beliefs that suicide is the answer to a moral dilemma, impacted judgment, access to lethal means, and history of nonfatal suicide attempts (warning signs).
Protective factors include good problem-solving skills, strong connections with others, and non-lethal methods for self-harm, like pills or cutting. Kids who are bullied may also be at higher risk because they are isolated and do not feel that they have anyone to turn to.
People with these risk factors can be helped by seeing a mental health professional for psychotherapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavior therapy. They can also be helped by limiting access to guns, as most youth suicides are committed with firearms, and by encouraging them to talk about their feelings in a safe and supportive environment. Research shows that when a person is at immediate risk, and help is sought, the likelihood of suicide decreases.
3. Know How to Help
Identifying and connecting people to care is an important part of preventing suicide. Strategies include gatekeeper training, suicide screening, and teaching warning signs.
If you think someone is suicidal, don’t hesitate to ask them directly if they are. Direct questioning doesn’t increase the risk of suicide and shows you care.
You can also encourage them to get professional help. They may need therapy to learn better coping skills, improve mental wellness and resiliency, or take antidepressants or other medications. You can help them make a safety plan and reduce access to lethal means by removing guns, drugs or other methods from their home or car.
You can also stay in touch after a crisis or after they have been discharged from treatment and help them keep their appointments. Research has shown that staying in contact can be life-saving. However, remember that you can only do so much. Even when loved ones and professionals do all they can, some people still die by suicide.
4. Know Where to Go for Help
It’s important to know where to go for help when someone you care about shows warning signs or risk factors. Help them create what’s known as a safety plan, which helps reduce suicide risk, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says. Typically, an at-risk person and their mental health provider work together to develop the safety plan, but family members or friends can also provide valuable support.
If your loved one has a firearm or access to other lethal means, ask about ways you can help remove those items from their environment (for example, locking up and safely storing medications; reducing the availability of pesticides, household chemicals or sharp objects). Removing lethal means can save lives, as shown in this video from the CDC.
Never keep a suicidal friend or family member’s thoughts or plans a secret, even if you’re afraid of straining your relationship or “tattling” on them. Most suicidal people who get help are relieved that someone finally told them about their feelings and thoughts.