It’s often difficult to imagine what led a friend, family member, or a celebrity to commit suicide. There may have been no clear warning signs, and you may wonder what clues you might have missed. Often, many factors combine to lead a person to the decision of taking their own life. It’s often an act made during a storm of strong emotions and life stresses rather than after a careful consideration.
The following mental health concerns can all increase someone’s risk of having suicidal thoughts:
While there are many factors that can influence a person’s decision to commit suicide, the most common one is severe depression. Most people make the decision to attempt suicide shortly before doing so impulsively rather than planning it out extensively. Depression can make people feel great emotional pain and loss of hope, making them unable to see another way to relieve the pain other than ending their own life.
2. Traumatic Stress
A person who has had a traumatic experience, including childhood sexual abuse, rape, physical abuse, or war trauma, is at a greater risk for suicide, even many years after the trauma.
3. Substance Use and Impulsivity
Drugs and alcohol can also influence a person who is feeling suicidal, making them more impulsive and likely to act upon their urges than they would be while sober. Substance and alcohol use can contribute to other reasons people commit suicide, such as the loss of jobs and relationships. The rates of substance use and alcohol use disorder are also higher among people with depression and other psychological disorders. Put these together and the risks increase.
4. Loss or Fear of Loss
A person may decide to take their own life when facing a loss or the fear of a loss. These situations can include:
- Ending a romantic relationship or close friendship
- Losing a job or being unemployed and unable to find a sufficient source of steady income
- Financial problems
- Losing social position
- Losing your living situation due to financial reasons or the ending of a relationship
- Academic failure
- Losing social or family acceptance due to revealing your sexual orientation
- Bullying, shaming, or humiliation, including cyber bullying
- Being arrested or imprisoned
Hopelessness, either in the short-term or as a longer-lasting trait, has been found in many studies to contribute to the decision to commit suicide. The person may be facing a social or physical challenge and may see no way the situation can improve. When people feel they have lost all hope and don’t feel able to change that, it can overshadow all of the good things in their life, making suicide seem like a viable option. While it might seem obvious to an outside observer that things will get better, people with depression may not be able to see this due to the pessimism and despair that go along with this illness.
6. Belief Your Life Is a Burden to Others
A person with chronic pain or a terminal illness can also feel like a burden to others, as it becomes harder and harder to ask for yet another ride to the doctor’s office or more help with household duties or assistance paying for hospital bills. In fact, many people who decide to commit suicide often state that their loved ones or the world, in general, would be better off without them. This type of rhetoric is a common warning sign of suicide. People often see themselves as a burden to others or feel worthless due to the overwhelming emotional burden they are carrying within.
7. Social Isolation
A person can become socially isolated for many reasons, including losing friends or a spouse, undergoing a separation or divorce, physical or mental illness, social anxiety, retirement, or due to a move to a new location. Social isolation can also be caused by internal factors such as low self-esteem. This can lead to loneliness and other risk factors of suicide such as depression and alcohol or drug misuse.
8. A Cry for Help
Sometimes people attempt suicide not so much because they really want to die, but because they simply don’t know how to get help. Suicide attempts are not a cry for attention but a cry for help. It becomes a way to demonstrate to the world just how much they are hurting. Unfortunately, these cries for help may sometimes prove to be fatal if the person misjudges the lethality of their chosen method. People who make a failed attempt are also at a much higher risk of trying again, and their second attempts are much more likely to be lethal.
How to know if someone is thinking about suicide?
It’s not always possible to tell if someone’s considering suicide. Experts agree that a number of warning signs can suggest a person might have suicide on their mind, but not everyone shows these signs. It’s also important to keep in mind that simply thinking about suicide doesn’t automatically lead to an attempt. What’s more, these “warning signs” don’t always mean that someone’s contemplating suicide. That being said, if you know someone who shows any of the following signs, it’s best to encourage them to talk to a therapist or other healthcare professional as soon as possible.
These signs include:
- talking about death or violence
- talking about dying or wanting to die
- accessing weapons or things that could be used for suicide, such as large amounts of certain over-the-counter or prescription medications
- rapid changes in mood
- talking about feeling trapped, hopeless, worthless, or as if they’re burdening others
- impulsive or risky behavior, including substance misuse, reckless driving, or practicing extreme sports unsafely
- withdrawal from friends, family, or social activities
- sleeping more or less than usual
- extreme anxiety or agitation
- a calm or quiet mood, especially after agitated or emotional behavior
Even if they aren’t considering suicide, these signs may still suggest something serious is going on. While it’s important to look at the whole picture and not assume these signs always indicate suicidality, it’s also best to take these signs seriously. If someone shows concerning signs or symptoms, check in on them and ask how they’re feeling.
How to ask someone if they’re feeling suicidal?
Suicide is preventable, but to prevent it, we must talk about it — and the way we talk about it matters.
You may worry that asking a loved one about suicide might increase the likelihood they’ll attempt it, or that bringing up the topic will put the idea in their head. This myth is common, but it’s just that — a myth. In fact, research suggests it can have the opposite effect. Talking about suicide can help reduce thoughts of suicide and may also have a positive impact on mental health overall. And, since people considering suicide often feel alone, asking about suicide can let them know you care enough to offer support or help them access professional care.
- Ask how they’re feeling. For example, “Are you thinking about suicide?” “Have you thought about hurting yourself before?” “Do you have weapons or a plan?”
- Really listen to what they say. Even if what they’re going through doesn’t seem like a serious concern to you, acknowledge it by validating their feelings and offering empathy and support.
- Tell them you care and encourage them to get help. “What you’re feeling sounds really painful and difficult. I’m worried about you, because you’re really important to me. Can I call your therapist for you or help you look for one?”
You can’t control someone’s thoughts and actions, but your words and actions have more power than you think. If you think someone you know is at risk for suicide, it’s better to take action and offer help that isn’t needed than worry about being wrong and do nothing when they truly need help.
Here are some ways you can help:
- Take warning signs or threats of suicide seriously. If they say anything that concerns you, talk to someone you trust, such as a friend or family member. Then get help.
- Reserve judgement. Take care not to say anything that might seem judgmental or dismissive. Expressing shock or empty reassurances, such as “you’ll be fine,” may cause them to just shut down. Try asking instead what’s causing their suicidal feelings or how you might be able to help.
- Offer support if you can. Tell them you’re available to talk, but know your limits. If you don’t think you can response in a helpful way, don’t leave them on their own. Find someone who can stay with them and talk, such as another friend or family member, a therapist, a trusted teacher, or a peer support person.
- Reassure them. Remind them of their value and express your opinion that things will improve, but emphasize the importance of seeking professional help.
- Remove potentially harmful items. If they have access to weapons, medications, or other substances they could use to attempt suicide or overdose, take these away if you can.
Dr. Rashmi Jha,
Intern at Patan Academy of Health Sciences