How To Know When Someone Is Suicidal + How You Can Help

Written by Mike Goulding, LCSW

Most of us know someone who struggles with life stressors, or who's had thoughts of not wanting to live. Many of us have heard through someone else or know someone personally who's thought about taking his own life. We want to help the person, but may not know what to say or do in these challenging moments.


The signs for suicide go from obvious (someone actually telling someone else) to undetectable (hiding the thoughts or act from everyone). Most of the time, however, people give clues that they're considering ending their own lives. Keep in mind that most people don’t want to die; they just don’t want to live in pain anymore. Here are some common ways people reveal those intentions:

  • They talk about not wanting to be here, about wishing they were dead, and can even make seemingly lighthearted jokes about killing themselves.
  • They start giving away prized possessions.
  • They start finalizing their affairs. Not only do people start taking care of their financial obligations, they also start saying things that indicate some kind of closure. The language begins to turn into what sounds like a friend who is moving away forever. For example: A friend who is usually sarcastic might say, “You're a really great friend.” It seems inconsistent with what the person may typically say to you.
  • They start taking unnecessary risks. These can come in the form of fast driving, walking in dangerous places or making unnecessary confrontations with potentially violent people.

Risk Factors:

1. The end of a relationship

The loss of a loved one is one of the biggest triggers for suicide.

2. Struggles with sexual identity

The top cause of suicide among teens is struggles with sexual identity. The struggles either come with determining what the person’s sexuality is, or knowing what it is and not knowing how and when to express it or share it with others.

3. Bullying or abuse

Many victims of physical or sexual trauma suffer from depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.

4. Major disappointments

Not getting into college, getting turned down for a promotion, getting caught doing something that could end your career are some examples of disappointments.

5. Being over 80 years of age

We often overlook people near the end of their life as a risk group for suicide. Many depressed people in this age group have lived through challenges like losing most of the friends and relatives that they've known all of their lives. Physical pain and the loss of the ability to provide self-care can lead to lower self-esteem or a reduced will to live.

6. Substance abuse

Many substances alter brain chemistry, causing mood swings and depression that are unrelated to outside circumstances. Recreational drugs are not regulated, and it's difficult to determine what their effects can have on someone. Alcohol, recreational drugs, and some prescription drugs act as depressants, which can lower one’s mood. Drugs also impair judgment, which makes is less difficult to commit suicide, and indeed many who have committed suicide were found to have been under the influence of substances.

7. Trauma

Posttraumatic stress disorder is another major risk factor for depression. This risk factor is now becoming more evident, as a higher number of soldiers are dying from suicide than from combat.

8. Firearms

People survive overdoses, jumping off buildings, intentional car crashes and wrist cutting. The presence of firearms increases the chances of a completed suicide in that shooting oneself is the most lethal method.

9. History (personal or family history) 

People who have already attempted suicide are more likely to attempt again than a person who has never attempted suicide. Mental health issues in the family also raise the risk, and a man is five times more likely to kill himself if his father has killed himself.

When To Intervene:

The sooner you get someone help, the better the chances for survival. You can often detect something not quite right with a friend, and there are steps you can take before the “S” word is even mentioned.

If the situation involves mild depression or anxiety, you may want to wait a day or two for the right situation to talk. If you think the person is at immediate risk of self-harm, don't wait.

How to Intervene:

If someone is showing signs of depression, you may want to start with a few gentle suggestions, like having your friend go with you to an event in order to be around other people. But if your concern is deeper, you may want to start a conversation that goes something like this:

“Because I care about you, I want to talk to you about some things I have noticed going on with you and that I am concerned about." List your concerns while discussing your fear of losing the person. Many depressed people do not realize the impact they have on others and often will change their minds about ending their life when they realize they may be hurting others in the process.

It is important to be supportive and nonjudgmental, and allow them to speak without interrupting. Often times suicidal people do not feel they are heard, accepted or acknowledged, which can lead to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. These feelings can lead to suicidal thoughts.

When the situation is more imminent, then more immediate action needs to be taken. For example, if your loved one has already committed self-harm, you need to call emergency services right away. Other circumstances that require immediate action occur when others use such poor judgment that could end up killing them or someone else. This would include situations like driving while intoxicated or pushing beyond physical limitations despite a health condition.

You can assist in calling a behavioral health insurance company that has mental health professionals to guide you to the appropriate next steps. If your friend doesn’t carry insurance, then go to the nearest emergency room. Health professionals have the knowledge and experience to further evaluate a person who may be suicidal.

Suicide is ultimately an individual's own decision. You can never know what another person is going to do, and you can't watch another person every moment of every day. Ask yourself the following question:

“If the worst were to happen, did I take all reasonable steps to stop this with the knowledge I had at the time?”

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