Suicide Prevention: Risk Factors, Warning Signs and How You Can Save a Life

Melissa McMillan sitting with her heading her hands in a somber mood.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, there is free support available 24/7. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You matter and you don’t have to struggle alone.

Suicide is not something we like to talk about, but it’s something we need to talk about. Suicide is the 10th overall leading cause of death in the United States. Yet, it’s the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-34, right behind unintentional injury. Let that sink in for a minute: intentional death is second only to accidental death for people ages 10-34.

To break suicide down in more concrete terms, approximately 129 people in the U.S. take their own life every day.

But there is good news: suicide is preventable, and it starts with ordinary people like you and I taking action. Now, before you mentally checkout or click away, hear me out. I know your to-do list is already long and adding “saving a life” feels overwhelming, but taking action to prevent suicide does not have to be complicated. You can simply start by becoming informed (a.k.a. reading this blog post).

Melissa McMillan sitting with her head in her hands, looking somber. Text reads, "Suicide Prevention: Risk Factors, Warning Signs and How You Can Save a Life."

Photo Credit: Debra Snell Photography

In this post, I’m going to cover the factors that increase a person’s risk of dying by suicide, warning signs to look for beyond waiting for someone to tell you they are having suicidal thoughts, and simple steps you can take to save a life. 

Risk Factors

Suicide often happens when mental illness, physical illness, life-stressors or a combination of the three overwhelm a person to the point of complete hopelessness. It’s important to note, however, that no single risk factor predicts suicide or is a guarantee that someone will attempt suicide. Risk factors do increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt, though, so it’s important to keep them in mind.

Mental Illness: Depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, personality disorders, PTSD

Physical Illness: Chronic pain, chronic illness or disease, brain injury

Life-Stressors: Divorce, relationship difficulties, death of a loved one by suicide or other cause, major life transitions, financial stress, unemployment, military service, abuse, bullying, pressure at work or school

Other Factors: Family history of suicide, previous suicide attempt(s), feeling lonely or isolated, access to firearms or drugs, exposure to sensationalized suicide stories in the media, impulsive or aggressive tendencies, lack of access to mental or physical healthcare

Warning Signs

When a person becomes hopeless, they may begin to see life as meaningless or not worth living, and they may begin to have thoughts of taking their own life. This is often referred to as suicidal ideation. However, because most of us are not mind readers and people may never disclose their suicidal thoughts to us, we need to be aware of other warning signs that could indicate an imminent suicide risk. 

Talking About: Killing themselves, life being unbearable, feelings of hopelessness or despair, having no reason to live, being a burden to others 

Behaviors: Searching online for suicide methods, looking for lethal means such as drugs or weapons, visiting or calling loved ones to say goodbye, giving away important possessions, isolating oneself from people, withdrawing from usual activities, sleeping more or less than usual, increased use of alcohol or drugs, recklessness, uncharacteristically posting about death or suicide on social media 

Mood Changes: Increased anger or agitation, depressed or anxious mood, loss of interest, shame, feeling humiliated, aggression, extreme mood swings, feeling a sense of relief or sudden improvement in mood

Suicide Prevention

Regardless of whether someone is exhibiting obvious warning signs, I encourage you to pay attention and trust your gut. If you suspect someone might be suicidal, it’s always best to ask directly. Never assume they’ve already been asked by someone else or that they “probably” have things under control. Always assume you are the only person reaching out because you very likely are. 

When you ask: Ask them in private, ask directly “Are you thinking about suicide?”, listen well, remain calm and non-judgmental, avoid giving advice or debating the meaning of life, encourage them to seek treatment from a doctor or therapist, let them know you care, be supportive and available

If they are considering suicide: Always take them seriously, stay with them, remove any lethal means they could use to end their life, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, escort them to an emergency room or mental health provider if suicide is imminent

Follow-up: Call, text or visit again after you’ve insured their immediate safety, offer additional help if you are capable, call, text or visit again within 24-48 hours of a hospital or treatment center discharge as this is a particularly vulnerable time, reach out to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline or Crisis Text Line if you find yourself struggling after helping someone else

As I said in the beginning, suicide is preventable. Being on the front lines of suicide prevention is as simple as educating yourself about risk factors and warning signs, checking in with the people around you and offering non-judgmental support to those who struggle with suicidal thoughts. Remember, giving a few minutes of your time to prevent suicide could give someone else their entire future.

People experiencing suicidal thoughts don’t always reach out for help. That’s why advocacy via education is a major component in preventing suicide. One simple thing you can do right now to advocate for suicide prevention is to share this post with family and friends so more people know what to look for and how to help.

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