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Signs of Suicide: How to Help

Searching for Answers: A panel review of Army Reserve suicides
Two of the leading causes of U.S. Army Reserve suicides in 2013 were due to relationship issues and problems with finances. (U.S. Army photo by Timothy L. Hale)

Suicide Prevention Month, observed in September, 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. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent statistics, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and accounts for nearly 40,000 deaths each year.

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 thinking about suicide may show symptoms of depression or anxiety, struggle with self-esteem issues or substance abuse, or withdraw from family and friends.

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

There may be additional behaviors to look for in service members and veterans:

  • Calling old friends, particularly military friends, to say goodbye
  • Cleaning a weapon that they may have as a souvenir
  • Visits to graveyards
  • Obsessed with news coverage of the war
  • Wearing the military uniform or part of the uniform, boots, etc., when such dress isn’t indicated
  • Talking about how honorable it is to be a soldier
  • Sleeping more (sometimes the decision to commit suicide brings a sense of peace of mind, and sleep is used as a means of withdrawing)
  • Becoming overprotective of children
  • Standing guard of the house, perhaps while everyone is asleep
  • Stopping and/or hording medication
  • Hording alcohol
  • Spending spree, buying gifts for family members and friends “to remember by”

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 mental health care 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 911, 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 800-273-8255 (service members and veterans press 1). You can also chat online or send a text to 838255. Even if there’s no immediate crisis, trained counselors can offer guidance on how to help someone and direct you to information and local resources. Some of these resources may include:

Visit the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury website for additional resources on suicide prevention, as well as psychological health and resilience.

If a service member in your life is struggling with psychological 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 for someone you suspect is considering suicide. Being informed could help save a life.

*This blog post updates deaths attributed to suicides in the United States.

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This page was last updated on: September 14, 2017.