The field of psychology is uniquely suited to suicide prevention. We can help people in crisis with clinical work, research, teaching and influencing policy.
Prevention strategies include treating psychiatric illnesses, removing access to lethal means (such as guns or drugs) and connecting people with supportive relationships and community. We can also encourage healthy lifestyles and promote resilience through social-emotional learning programs.
1. Identifying people at risk
People who have had a traumatic life event or experienced severe emotional distress may be at risk of suicide. Suicide prevention efforts aim to identify these individuals and get them care before they attempt suicide.
People at risk can include those in your family, your community, and your school or workplace. They might talk about suicide or have a history of attempts in the past. They might also focus on death and dying, research ways to kill themselves, or make plans. They may research and purchase lethal drugs or weapons, such as guns or knives, and even write a suicide note.
People at risk are often isolated or don’t want to admit they’re thinking about suicide, so it’s important to listen carefully and take their words seriously. You should also remove any potential means of suicide from their environment, such as pills, razors, or firearms. This can help prevent accidental deaths, which are common in suicides.
2. Providing care and support
While suicide prevention is often viewed as a specialist area, services can be delivered by health care professionals in many settings. This includes hospitals and community agencies serving people with mental or substance use disorders, as well as those providing primary care, home psychotherapy services, and community support for older adults.
Providing care and support means screening all patients for suicide risk, connecting those at risk to services, and providing care that addresses their risk factors. It also means teaching people the warning signs, reducing barriers to help-seeking (such as lack of access or beliefs that help won’t work), and providing hope.
It’s also important to support the health care workforce, who are at increased risk for suicide. This AHA guide offers a curated list of evidence-informed interventions to prevent suicide in the workplace.
3. Teaching warning signs
Suicide can be a very hidden threat, especially for young people. Although there are some overt warning signs, like expressing feelings of hopelessness or talking about wanting to kill themselves, often there are no visible signs at all. This can make it even harder for teachers and school staff to recognize when something is wrong.
Educating students and staff about what to look for can help them identify warning signs. In addition, teaching about protective factors that can prevent suicide is also important. These include: effective coping and problem-solving skills, a strong sense of purpose, social connections, good quality physical health, safe storage of lethal means, and access to care.
If you suspect a student is suicidal, ask them about their thoughts. Research shows that asking does not increase a person’s risk and they are often relieved that someone cares enough to ask. Stay with them until they are taken to a professional for help.
4. Providing hope
Suicide prevention can involve addressing the root causes of risk. This means supporting people to learn coping skills and connect with mental health services. It also includes advocating for justice for people who are harmed by racism, discrimination, sexism and other forms of oppression.
Hope is a powerful force that can help someone see beyond their current struggle and envision a future that is more hopeful. Hope can be promoted by encouraging people to spend time doing things that bring joy and fulfilment, such as connecting with others, pursuing interests and passions, or contributing to their community.
Often, those who are at risk of suicide will express their intentions or warning signs in the course of a crisis, such as mentioning what they would use to kill themselves. One of the most important things to do is to help them create a safety plan, which can be done by a mental health professional and with friends or family. This is an effective way to reduce access to lethal methods and increase a person’s ability to seek emergency care.