Suicide is not a mental illness in itself, but a serious potential consequence of treatable mental disorders that include major depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa.
Suicide Warning Signs
Any of the following could be potential warning signs for suicide:
- Excessive sadness or moodiness: Long-lasting sadness, mood swings, and unexpected rage.
- Hopelessness: Feeling a deep sense of hopelessness about the future, with little expectation that circumstances can improve.
- Sleep problems.
- Sudden calmness: Suddenly becoming calm after a period of depression or moodiness can be a sign that the person has made a decision to end his or her life.
- Withdrawal: Choosing to be alone and avoiding friends or social activities also are possible symptoms of depression, a leading cause of suicide. This includes the loss of interest or pleasure in activities the person previously enjoyed.
- Changes in personality and/or appearance: A person who is considering suicide might exhibit a change in attitude or behavior, such as speaking or moving with unusual speed or slowness. In addition, the person might suddenly become less concerned about his or her personal appearance.
- Dangerous or self-harmful behavior: Potentially dangerous behavior, such as reckless driving, engaging in unsafe sex, and increased use of drugs and/or alcohol might indicate that the person no longer values his or her life.
- Recent trauma or life crisis: A major life crises might trigger a suicide attempt. Crises include the death of a loved one or pet, divorce or break-up of a relationship, diagnosis of a major illness, loss of a job, or serious financial problems.
- Making preparations: Often, a person considering suicide will begin to put his or her personal business in order. This might include visiting friends and family members, giving away personal possessions, making a will, and cleaning up his or her room or home. Some people will write a note before committing suicide. Some will buy a firearm or other means like poison.
- Threatening or talking about suicide: From 50% to 75% of those considering suicide will give someone -- a friend or relative -- a warning sign. However, not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it. Every threat of suicide should be taken seriously.
Who Is Most Likely to Commit Suicide?
Suicide rates are highest in teens, young adults, and the elderly. White men over the age of 65 have the highest rate of suicide. Suicide risk also is higher in the following groups:
- Older people who have lost a spouse through death or divorce
- People who have attempted suicide in the past
- People with a family history of suicide
- People with a friend or co-worker who committed suicide
- People with a history of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- People who are unmarried, unskilled, or unemployed
- People with long-term pain or a disabling or terminal illness
- People who are prone to violent or impulsive behavior
- People who have recently been released from a psychiatric hospitalization (This often is a very frightening period of transition.)
- People in certain professions, such as police officers and health care providers who work with terminally ill patients
- People with substance abuse problems
Although women are three times as likely to attempt suicide, men are far more likely to complete the act.
Can Suicide Be Prevented?
Suicide can't be prevented with certainty, but risks can often be reduced with timely intervention. Research suggests that the best way to prevent suicide is to know the risk factors, be alert to the signs of depression and other mental disorders, recognize the warning signs for suicide, and intervene before the person can complete the process of self-destruction.
What Should I Do if I Think Someone is Suicidal?
People who receive support from caring friends and family and who have access to mental health services are less likely to act on their suicidal impulses than are those who are socially isolated. If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs for suicide:
- Don't be afraid to ask if he or she is depressed or thinking about suicide.
- Ask if he or she is seeing a therapist or taking medication.
- Rather than trying to talk the person out of suicide, let him or her know that depression is temporary and treatable.
- In some cases, the person just needs to know that someone cares and is looking for the chance to talk about his or her feelings. You can then encourage the person to seek professional help.
What Should I Do if I See the Warning Signs of Suicide?
If you believe someone you know is in immediate danger of killing himself or herself:
- Do not leave the person alone. If possible, ask for help from friends or other family members.
- Ask the person to give you any weapons he or she might have. Take away or remove sharp objects or anything else that the person could use to hurt himself or herself.
- If the person is already in psychiatric treatment, help him or her to contact the doctor or therapist for guidance and help.
- Try to keep the person as calm as possible.
- Call 911 or take the person to an emergency room.
Call your local suicide prevention hotline or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health (SAMHSA) National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).