Suicide prevention starts at home, in school, at work and in your neighborhood. But what does that look like? And what can you say to someone you suspect is struggling with thoughts of suicide? Learn more about what you can say and do to help prevent suicides in your community in this short guide.
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Understanding the prevalence and warning signs of suicidal thinking and behavior is the first step of prevention.
- The 10th leading cause of death for Americans across all ages every year.
- The second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34
- The fourth leading cause among people ages 35-44
- The fifth leading cause among people ages 45-54.
Suicide was the cause for more than 47,500 deaths in 2019, which is about one death every 11 minutes.
In 2019, 12 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, 3.5 million planned a suicide attempt, and 1.4 million attempted suicide.
The highest suicide rates in the US are among whites, American Indians, and Alaska Natives. Other Americans with higher than average rates of suicide are veterans, people who live in rural areas, and workers in certain industries and occupations such as mining and construction. Young people who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual have a higher rate of suicidal ideation and behavior compared to their peers who identify as straight. Early data from 2020 points to an increase in suicide among Black Americans, who are also more likely to lack access to adequate mental healthcare.
Despite its pervasiveness, suicide is preventable. We all have a role to play in preventing suicide in our families, schools, at work, and in our larger communities. It starts with knowing the warning signs of suicide.
Warning signs of suicide
- Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or reckless
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge, and
- Displaying extreme changes in mood
Call 911 right away if you see or hear the following:
- Someone threatening to hurt or kill him/herself or talking about wanting to die, especially if the person has a weapon or item to hurt himself/herself.
- Someone searching for ways to attempt suicide by seeking access to lethal means, whether that is online or physically in the moment of despair.
- Someone talking, writing, or posting on social media about death and suicide when these actions are out of the ordinary for the person.
It can be hard to talk about suicide. The stigma around mental health condition and suicide can be an overwhelming barrier for someone experiencing thoughts of suicide. Stigma can come from families, peers, and society as a whole.
Some examples of stigma are:
- A person experiencing suicidal thoughts believing they can’t talk about their mental state because they fear being labelled “crazy,” or being a burden to others
- The incorrect idea that talking about suicide could plant the idea of suicide in a person’s mind
- A person not disclosing suicidal thoughts because they fear social rejection or ostracization
Stigma is harmful because it often prevents people from seeking help when they need it. It can also prevent well-meaning friends and family from intervening or speaking to someone they are concerned about.
Data shows that most people who experience suicidal thoughts do not seek professional help. That’s why it’s imperative we voice the concerns we have about someone’s mental well-being as soon as we notice something is wrong.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
- How we can all prevent suicide: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Once you’ve noticed warning signs of suicidal thinking in someone, what can you say? If you or someone you know is in immediate danger of harming themselves or others, call 911 right away. In some cases, asking questions and letting someone know you are there for them might be enough to convince them to get help.
Here are some examples of what you can say if you’re worried about someone’s mental well-being and suspect they are considering suicide.
“I’ve noticed some behaviors that are concerning me. I care about you. Is everything okay?”
“It sounds like things are really rough right now, and I’m worried about you. Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
“I know this is hard to talk about, but I love you and am concerned you’re in pain. Can you tell me what’s weighing on your mind?”
“I can’t imagine how painful this is for you, but I would like to try to understand.”
“Have you ever thought about attempting to kill yourself?”
“I want to check in on you because you seem more sad/distant/angry than usual. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“Do you sometimes feel so bad that you think of suicide?”
“You’re not alone. I’m here for you. We will get through this together.”
The most important thing you can do is listen and ask questions in a non-judgmental way. Don’t criticize or blame. Instead, try to understand what the person is going through and how you can help. You can also suggest the person seek professional help they are comfortable with, such as a doctor or a counselor. Never keep talk of suicide a secret. Let them know that they can talk about these issues with you in the future.
There is no easy fix for suicidal thoughts and ideation. Speaking honestly and openly about suicidal thoughts is the first step to prevention. Sometimes, a listening ear is all someone needs to reconsider. More often, people struggling with suicidal thoughts need professional help to recover.
Suicide prevention is an ongoing effort. You can encourage others to be open about their mental health by providing a listening ear and speaking about your own mental health openly. You, along with your friends and family, can work together to make your community a supportive environment for people struggling with their mental health.
Here are some other ways you can empower the people in your life to help prevent suicide and create understanding attitudes around mental health:
- Encourage others to speak openly about their mental health and thoughts of suicide
- Distribute information and resources in your community about suicide prevention
- Join in our advocacy efforts to amplify the voices of people living with mental health conditions
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