Signs of Suicide: How to Help

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. (Army Photo)

This Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) blog post explains the warning signs of suicide and steps people can take if they notice them.

You may have noted increased attention to suicide prevention this month on military websites and related platforms. While efforts to address this tragic occurrence are ongoing and robust, Suicide Prevention Month, observed in September, concentrates attention on prevention resources. It also provides an opportunity for us to increase our knowledge and understanding of risk factors associated with suicidal behavior and how to help someone in crisis.

Suicide is the deliberate taking of one's own life — 30,000 Americans commit the act each year and an additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually, according to the Defense Suicide Prevention Office website. Also, suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24, and the fourth leading cause of death among 25 to 44-year-olds in the United States. On average, 22 veterans die by suicide each day. Yet, most of us don't realize that if we knew what to look for, we might help prevent a suicide from happening. For example, friends or loved ones who may be considering suicide show symptoms of depression or anxiety, or may struggle with self-esteem issues.

Know the Warning Signs

A common myth about suicide is that you can't do anything if someone is suicidal because you're not an expert. This isn't the case. You don't need to be an expert in psychological health to recognize when someone you care about is having a hard time. The best way to prevent suicide is to recognize troubling signs. Some of the most common warning signs to look for in an individual include:

  • Expressing hopelessness, like there's no way out
  • Appearing sad or depressed most of the time
  • Feeling anxious, agitated or unable to sleep
  • Neglecting personal well-being
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Losing interest in day-to-day activities
  • Frequent and dramatic mood changes
  • Expressing feelings of excessive guilt or shame
  • Feelings of failure or decreased performance
  • Feeling like there's no reason to live
  • Increased alcohol or drug abuse
  • Talking about death

Learn What to Do

Another common myth is that talking about suicide may give someone the idea. However, evidence suggests that asking someone if they're having thoughts about hurting themselves is helpful. If you suspect someone may be suicidal, talk to them. If you don't ask, there's no way to intervene and get help. Experts suggest the following advice for family and friends who suspect someone is suicidal:

  • Trust your instincts that the person may be in trouble
  • Be willing to listen
  • Ask direct questions without being judgmental ("Are you thinking about killing yourself?" or "Have you ever tried to end your life?" or "Do you think you might try to kill yourself today?")
  • Determine if the person has a specific plan to carry out the suicide
  • Don't leave the person alone
  • Don't swear to secrecy
  • Don't act shocked
  • Don't counsel the person yourself
  • Get professional help on the phone or escort the person to a counselor, chaplain or other professional mental health provider
  • Remove potential means of self-harm

Know How to Get Help

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, seek immediate help — call a local crisis center, dial 988, or take the individual to an emergency room. Free, confidential help is available 24/7 through the Military Crisis Line (also known as the Veterans Crisis Line and National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 988 (military members and veterans press 1). You can also online chat with a Military Crisis Line responder or send a text to 988. Even if there's no immediate crisis, trained counselors can offer guidance on how to help someone and point you to services (for mental health and substance abuse) and resources (suicide prevention coordinators). For additional suicide prevention and mental health resources, visit the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury websites.

If a service member in your life is struggling with mental health concerns, encourage them to seek help. Suicide is a complex issue, but you can learn the warning signs, understand what to do, and how to get help. Being informed could help save a life.

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