Preventing Suicide Through Public Health

preventing suicide

Suicide is a serious, complex public health issue that impacts people across all backgrounds and circumstances. The field of psychology is uniquely positioned to contribute to its prevention through research, clinical work, teaching and advocacy.

Anyone can help prevent suicide by recognizing warning signs and responding quickly when someone is at risk. Here are some steps to take:

1. Know the Signs

People who are suicidal or at risk for suicide often exhibit warning signs, which can be verbal or nonverbal. They might show a change in behavior, such as withdrawing from friends or family and avoiding social activities they used to enjoy. They might express increased anxiety or feelings of hopelessness, or they might become irritable and lash out at those around them.

Some signs might be obvious, such as buying a gun or stockpiling pills. But some are harder to recognize, like sudden calmness or a person who seems happy after a period of depression or moodiness.

If you suspect that someone is at risk, listen to them without judgment and encourage them to talk about how they are feeling. Take their concerns seriously and if possible, remove any access to lethal means such as firearms or medications. You can also help by encouraging them to call 988 or other support services. These resources will connect them to a trained counselor who can offer them support and information about available options.

2. Know the Risk Factors

Suicide is associated with a number of risk factors including mental health conditions, life stressors, substance abuse and access to lethal means. Psychiatric illnesses, like depression, are the most common risk factor and are particularly potent when they occur in conjunction with other risk factors. Other mental health disorders associated with suicide include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and personality disorders such as borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. Serious or chronic health conditions such as cancer, end stage renal disease and HIV/AIDS are also associated with suicide.

Many suicide prevention efforts are focused on identifying and mitigating the risk factors that increase the likelihood of someone considering, planning or making an attempt at suicide. These include risk and warning signs, a history of suicide in family members, loss or major life events such as divorce or the death of a loved one, academic failure, chronic physical illness and exposure to the suicidal behaviour of others. Research is pointing to the importance of taking a systemic approach that addresses all the possible contributing factors, especially those that are modifiable such as lack of social support and poverty, access to lethal means and other social inequalities.

3. Know How to Help

If someone says they are suicidal, take it seriously. Fifty to 75 percent of people who commit suicide actually give some sort of warning or tip off that they are going to kill themselves.

Talk to them and listen nonjudgmentally. This can have a powerful, positive impact. Ask them how they are feeling and what is causing the distress. Help them get connected with resources for support, such as a suicide hotline or community groups. Removing weapons or other lethal materials from their environment may also be helpful.

Work with them to develop a safety plan, especially if they are at high risk for suicide. This could involve having someone stay with them or having a trusted adult arrange for someone to check in on them regularly and remove firearms from their home while they are struggling. In addition, helping them build life skills and resilience can reduce their risk for suicide by enabling them to safely address stressful events like financial challenges, divorce, or physical illness.

4. Know When to Seek Help

Getting help early is important. Identifying people at risk and connecting them with treatment is key to preventing suicide. Public health programs are vital in raising awareness, improving screening and increasing access to mental health care. Individuals can also play a role by being open about their own mental health and encouraging those around them to seek help.

Pay attention to changes in sleep, appetite and social activity, especially if they are new or out of the ordinary. Major changes in a person’s appearance or personality are also red flags. Reducing access to lethal tools, such as weapons or medications is also important.

Talk to someone you trust about suicidal feelings and plans. Don’t be afraid that you will be betraying their trust or “tattling.” Most suicidal people are relieved when someone tells them they need help. Encourage them to spend time with others and develop a safety plan, such as checking in with friends or family members and a doctor/therapist.