Knowing the signs of suicide is critical to getting help. Learn what to look for and ways to provide support.

How to spot signs of suicide and ways to help

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When a loved one mentions or attempts suicide, it can be a devastating shock. Family members often never considered that their loved one would be at risk, but the reality is that certain groups are at greater risk for suicide. And they may not look or act like the groups one would expect.

“There is a misconception that suicide is more prevalent among the younger crowd, but the statistics don’t support that,” says Cindy Estes, MSN, MHA, RN, NE-BC, director of patient care at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.

“People aged 45 to 64 have the highest rate of suicide regardless of gender, followed by those age 85 and older,” Estes says. “In general, men have a four times higher rate of suicide than women.”

Factors other than age and gender can also play a part.

Untreated depression can lead to suicide, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). It’s also the number one risk factor for suicide among youth, says the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).

Here are the signs to be aware of and how to possibly help a friend or loved one.

Signs To Watch For

The first sign is a change in habits. “People may have difficulty sleeping, or maybe they’re sleeping all the time. They may have difficulty eating, or maybe they’re eating all the time,” says Estes.

Also, listen closely to what people who may be suicidal say. “They may tell you, ‘Oh you would be better off if I were dead.’ They may tell you that they have nothing to live for, and you may notice that they don’t seem to enjoy doing the things they once used to have fun with,” she says.

Unusual public displays may also indicate someone is on the verge of suicide. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline says potential signs of suicide on social media (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, YouTube or Tumblr) may include:

  1. A post about wanting to die or kill oneself 
  2. Writing about hopeless feelings or having no reasons to live
  3. Writing about feeling trapped or experiencing unbearable pain
  4. Feeling as though they are a burden to others
  5. Writing about the need to take revenge on someone

What Can Be Done To Help

One misconception is that certain people have an ironclad death wish and that nothing can get in the way.

Actually, even the most severely depressed person does not want death, but rather for the pain to stop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

Contrary to popular belief, asking loved ones about plans to commit suicide doesn’t plant any ideas. In fact, putting this out in the open can be one of the best things to do, according to the EAP.

The first thing is to find out if they have a plan for ending their lives.

“If they have a plan—maybe with a gun or with pills, call a crisis number and stay with that person until help arrives,” Estes says. Also, remove anything they may use to hurt themselves.

“Safety always comes first. It doesn’t matter whether they’ve told you not to tell anyone. You may lose a friend, but you are saving a life by doing the right thing,” she explains.

Options for help include both the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and 911. Estes says most local police have been trained for suicide prevention through a program called crisis intervention training (CIT). It’s a very specific plan that trains police on how to respond to mental health patients.

In a less dire situation, Cindy suggests visiting the local university’s psychiatric department. She says that universities commonly perform research studies to help mental health patients and may have helpful resources.