The first step to suicide intervention is recognizing warning signs.
Once the signs have been recognized, it’s equally important that something is done about it. We’re here to help you understand what you can do, what will help, and what to avoid.
People who are struggling may not be very forthcoming about feeling suicidal. However, there may still be signs that might help loved ones know when to approach them with support or intervention.
Major warning signs someone may attempt suicide include:
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Withdrawing from life and social responsibilities
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Agitated, anxious, or restless behavior
- Extreme mood swings
- Talking about wanting to die or self-harm
- Increased fascination with death or suicide, especially with specific means of suicide
These indicators are serious and require intervention, but may not be an immediate emergency. However, if the person is directly threatening suicide, posting on social media about death or suicide, or researching or seeking access to methods of suicide, call 911 immediately. *
* Threats of suicide should always be taken seriously, but if they are coming from an abusive partner—especially if you are trying to leave—take measures to secure your own safety first. A suicidal abuser may also try to harm their partner before taking their own life. Get to safety and contact emergency services.
Signs can be subtle, or even misleading, so don’t blame yourself if some things slip your notice and things come to a crisis point. Do your best to invest in your close relationships so you can more easily notice when something is off. This is especially important if your loved one is experiencing mental illness.
No matter the circumstances, understand that missing signs does not mean you have failed them.
It is sometimes the case that a person who has been depressed or in crisis for a long time will suddenly become uncharacteristically calm or upbeat if they have decided to attempt suicide. This can happen because they feel they have found a simple resolution to their problems and that an end to their suffering is in sight.
This is why it is so important for loved ones to be aware of the person’s feelings and behavior patterns so they might recognize when a sudden positive change in mood may be cause for concern.
How to Intervene and Provide Support
If you have noticed warning signs in your loved one but they have not spoken to you directly about feeling suicidal, the next step is to speak to them. Starting a dialogue can feel awkward or invasive, but your willingness to talk may give the person permission to speak where they previously felt they couldn’t.
1. Begin by Asking
Some questions to ask to start a conversation may include:
- “Do you ever feel so bad that you think about suicide?”
- “Do you have a plan to kill yourself or take your life?”
- “Have you thought about when you would do it (today, tomorrow, next week)?”
- “Have you thought about what method you would use?”
These questions can help you assess how serious the danger is and respond accordingly.
2. Keep Calm and Trust Yourself
The knowledge that a loved one may be at risk of suicide can be overwhelming. Whether they have directly confided in you about their struggles, or you have noticed concerning behavior from them, it can be difficult to know what to do next.
The first thing to know is that your intervention is already a big step toward keeping your loved one safe. Your response may not be perfect, but your willingness to act on their behalf is already going a long way toward bringing them the support they need during this time.
3. Press Pause on Tough Love
There are a few things to avoid when intervening with someone who is feeling suicidal.
- Minimizing - Even if you believe they are overreacting to their situation, never try to minimize their problems. Mental illness does not respond to assurance that it “isn’t that bad” or insistence that suicide would be a selfish decision.
- Shame - Regardless of your own opinions about the situation, your loved one needs to hear that you are not disappointed in them, that life can get better, and that you are willing to do whatever is needed to help them. Trying to shame a suicidal person into changing their mind will only make things worse.
4. Be Extra Proactive
Once you have talked to your loved one about their suicidal thoughts, it is important not only to take action, but to follow through no matter what. Even a person who is willing to seek help may not have the motivation or ability to do so on their own, so your own motivated support is crucial.
5. Seek Professional Help
If the threat is not immediate, you can start by helping your loved one find a doctor or mental health professional to get them on a path to recovery. You may need to go so far as to make the first phone call, or even to take them to their appointment.
People suffering from severe depression have a difficult time following through on these things, so it may be up to you to make sure the initial steps toward seeking help are executed.
6. Don’t Try to Do it Alone
If your loved one has told you about their plans to take their life:
Don’t keep secrets. Even if it was told to you in confidence, and even if they are upset with you for telling, their safety is far more important.
Reach out for help. If you are not in a direct position to help and monitor your loved one, contact someone who is.
If they are a minor, contact parents and school counselors, as well as any other trusted adults in their life.
If they are an adult, contact partners, roommates, close family members, or any others who may be in a position to help you keep track of the person and find them help.
Remove access to dangerous items. If you are directly responsible for the person, you can help ensure their safety while you work on getting them help by staying aware of their location and restricting access to any means of self-harm (pills, weapons, access to heights or busy roads, etc.).
Though suicidal ideation and planning may be ongoing and persistent, the crisis period during which someone is likely to actively attempt suicide is usually short. Until it passes, this is the most important time to provide support and reduce access to lethal means.
7. Recognize When It’s an Emergency
Finally, if at any point you suspect the situation has escalated to become an emergency, don’t hesitate to call 911. You can also call the 988 Crisis & Suicide Prevention Lifeline for guidance on what to do in your specific situation.
Suicide can be prevented. The more quickly a person’s loved ones notice and take action toward helping them, the more likely they will be able to get the help they need. However, please remember, it is not your fault if your loved one dies by suicide. No matter the outcome, your efforts are important, and your support could save a life.