The month of September is hailed by mental health advocates, survivors, and prevention organizations as National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This month also includes World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, and National Suicide Prevention Week, which is the Monday through Sunday surrounding World Suicide Prevention Day.
During these observances, it is an opportunity for individuals to share resources on suicide prevention, promote suicide prevention awareness, share stories of surviving suicide, and to remember those affected by suicide. This year, it’s especially pertinent to recognize that the stress of the coronavirus pandemic has had a large impact on suicidal ideation in America. A recent study from the CDC reported 11% of respondents had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. For essential workers, this increased to 22%.
Now more than ever, it’s critical that all individuals are aware of the prevalence of suicide, know how to recognize the warning signs for suicide, and understand how to effectively help someone when they are struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Suicide is a leading cause of death in America
During Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, it’s important to recognize the prevalence of suicide in America.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. For younger individuals, between the ages of 10 and 34, it increases to the second leading cause of death. In 2018, over 48,000 Americans died by suicide, with 50% of those deaths involving firearms.
When it comes to suicide attempts, there is no complete count of this data in the U.S. The CDC gathers data regarding non-fatal injuries of self-harm, as well as voluntary survey data. With these sources, it is estimated that in 2018, 1.4 million adults attempted suicide—or 0.5% of adults aged 18 or older in the U.S. Of course, without an official count, this could be a conservative number.
Given these startling statistics, over half of Americans know someone who has had suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide, or completed suicide. It is critical that all individuals learn how to recognize the risks for suicide and understand how to intervene when someone is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
What are the warning signs?
There is no single cause for suicide. It most often occurs when stressors and health issues combine to create feelings of hopelessness and despair for the individual. Conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use can increase risk for suicide, especially when these conditions are left untreated.
Other risk factors for suicide include:
- Serious physical health conditions, including chronic pain
- Mental health conditions that are untreated
- Traumatic brain injury
- Access to lethal means, such as firearms or drugs
- Prolonged stress or traumatic stressful life events (including childhood trauma)
- Exposure to another’s suicide, such as graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
- Previous suicide attempts or a family history of suicide
Individuals experiencing suicidal thoughts may have a shift in behavior or the presence of entirely new behaviors. This could include things like increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from activities, isolating from family or friends, sleeping too much or too little, or expressing aggression. Other behaviors that could hint to an individual contemplating suicide could include things like searching online for methods to end their life, giving away prized possessions, or contacting people in their life to say goodbye.
It’s also important to pay attention to certain phrases or thoughts a person may express that could point to them feeling suicidal. This could include things like:
- Talking about killing themselves (either seriously or as a “joke”)
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness
- Saying they have no reason to live
- Stating that they are a burden to others
- Saying they feel “trapped”
- Talking about feeling unbearable pain (either physically or emotionally)
How can I intervene if someone I know is suicidal?
No matter how uncomfortable the situation may feel, if you notice someone expressing behaviors or thoughts that could indicate they are feeling suicidal, it is critical to address it. The National Institute for Mental Health outlines five different action steps to help address and prevent suicide:
- Ask — Simply ask the individual, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” It’s not an easy question to ask, but many studies have shown that asking an at-risk individual if they are thinking of killing themselves does not increase their risk of attempting suicide, nor does it increase suicidal thoughts. Additionally, if an individual is NOT having suicidal thoughts, asking them if they are thinking of killing themselves does not “put the idea into their head” or increase the risk that they will become suicidal.
- Keep them safe — If the individual reports they are having thoughts of suicide, ask them if they have a plan and attempt to remove or limit the ability for the individual to carry out their plan. It’s important to determine if they have access to highly lethal items (such as firearms) or places that could be dangerous to them.
- Be there — Listen to the individual carefully, and let them express what they are thinking and feeling. Research studies have found that acknowledging or talking about suicide can actually reduce, rather than increase, suicidal thoughts.
- Help them connect — Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s number as well as the Crisis Text Line number in your phone, so it is easily available to you if you need it. Provide these numbers to the individual as well. Help connect the individual to another trusted support person, such as a family member, friend, therapist or counselor, or spiritual leader.
- Stay connected — Stay in touch with the individual after the crisis has passed or after they have sought out care. One study found that the number of suicide deaths decreases when someone follows-up after a suicide intervention.
As stated earlier, these conversations can be difficult and painful. However, failing to intervene when someone you care for is expressing suicidal thoughts can place them at a higher risk of trying to attempt suicide. It is possible for anyone to help prevent suicide, no matter your experience or background. It simply requires reaching out, asking questions, and helping individuals connect to the right resources.
Remember, you can use these tip all year-round, not just Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts about suicide, there is hope. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
Suicide: Identifying and Responding to Risk
Addressing and preventing suicide requires a multi-pronged approach that encompasses staff training as well as effective communication of an organization’s policies and procedures. Learn more about ways to help your organization identify and respond to risk of suicide.VIEW our resources →