Suicide prevention isn’t a pleasant subject to discuss, but we all have to face the facts. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 30,000 people die by suicide each year in the U.S.. A death by suicide occurs every 16 minutes. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 24. It’s safe to say that we have an epidemic on our hands.
You may think, “What can I do about suicide prevention? I’m not a doctor, therapist, or researcher.” But numbers like these mean that at some point, you’ll probably encounter someone in desperate need of help. That person could be a coworker, friend, or family member. Or maybe you already know someone who may be suicidal. You can’t save 30,000 people per year, but you can play a critical role in suicide prevention by helping to save one life-and every single life matters.
NOTE: If you believe that a friend or loved one is in imminent danger, bring him or her to the nearest emergency room. If he or she refuses, call 911 or your local mental health crisis facility. Whatever the case, take action IMMEDIATELY.
If you are thinking of harming yourself, please know that help and hope are available. Get the help you need and deserve NOW. Call a friend, family member, or a crisis hotline such as The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. Remember: you are not alone.
Suicide prevention, part 1: What are the major risk factors for suicide?
Suicide prevention depends largely on recognizing risk factors, both in populations and in individuals. Below are some of the risk factors which the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has identified:
— Approximately 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a psychiatric illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
— 20 to 50 percent of those who kill themselves have attempted suicide before. The more serious the attempt(s), the higher the risk that the person will “succeed” at taking his or her life in the future.
— People who tend to be impulsive are more likely to attempt suicide.
Suicide prevention, part 2: How do you tell when someone might be suicidal?
In addition to considering general risk factors, you also need to look for specific signs which indicate that a person may be in danger of attempting suicide. These can include:
— Intense, observable distress that compounds the symptoms of clinical depression.
— Expressing extreme feelings of worthlessness and despair.
— Giving away prized possessions.
— Self-destructive behavior, such as abusing alcohol and other drugs.
— Hinting at or talking openly about suicidal thoughts and urges.
Recognizing the warning signs is essential to suicide prevention.
Suicide prevention, part 3: How do you intervene when you fear that a friend or family member might attempt suicide?
Effective suicide prevention means treating the above signs and behaviors with the utmost seriousness. Most people who commit suicide give some indication of their plans to harm themselves. A critical part of suicide prevention is understanding that most suicidal people don’t truly want to die. They simply want their anguish to stop, and suicide seems like the only way to find relief. Talking about suicide is a desperate cry for help that must be heard. If someone tells you he doesn’t think he can go on living, believe him-but know that what he really wants is for someone to prevent him from acting on his suicidal impulses.
Suicide prevention involves both careful listening and asking some tough questions. Your friend or loved one may resist discussing the details of his situation. Be direct and persistent. You can’t be his therapist, and you shouldn’t try. However, you need to get a sense of what’s troubling him-and of how close he may be to attempting suicide. Ask him straight out whether he’s thinking of harming himself. You can’t bring about another person’s suicide by “putting ideas in his head.” Asking about specific thoughts of self-harm is crucial to suicide prevention.
By listening and asking questions in a calm, non-judgmental manner, you’re proving to your friend or loved one that you care and that he can count on you. The suicidal state of mind creates incredibly intense feelings of loneliness. Suicide prevention means breaking through that loneliness and letting the person know he’s not alone. Once you gain his trust, you have a better chance of convincing him to accept professional help. You cannot do the work of suicide prevention by yourself-it’s a team effort. Your friend or loved one needs a competent therapist, psychiatrist, or both, in addition to the support of the people in his life.
You may need to find professional help for him. If the risk of self-harm appears to be high, this is a critical time for suicide prevention. Get him to the emergency room or call 911, NOW. If the situation is serious but not urgent enough to warrant an ER visit, call your local mental health crisis center, family primary care provider, or community health center for referrals.
However, your role in suicide prevention won’t end here. You may have to bring him to appointments in the beginning. If the person is a friend, you’ll need to involve his other friends and his family if possible. If he’s a family member, you’ll both need the support of siblings, parents, and partners. A mental health professional may insist that the person not be left alone until he’s out of crisis, that someone supervise the administering of medication, and that extremely dangerous items such as firearms and razor blades be removed from the home environment. Again, suicide prevention is a team effort. You’ll need all the help you can get.
Most people don’t know what’s involved in suicide prevention. Tragically, they discover the steps they might have taken to help their friend or loved one only after it’s too late. Suicide prevention is one of the most difficult, and the most important, tasks you’ll ever take on. One thing is for certain: you’ll be glad you did.