Who is at risk and what you can do to help
Reviewed by: Donna Shanor, LCSW, LCDC
Written by: Abbi Havens
Trigger warning: Suicide.
In recent years, society’s perception of the public conversation surrounding suicide has evolved. What was treated as an unspeakable taboo is now an ongoing discussion of the dangers of mental illness and staying silent in the news, on social media and in household conversation. Recent tragic deaths of artists, musicians, chefs, comedians and more in the public eye are not in vain. In fact, these events have contributed to a world-wide dialogue surrounding suicide, suicide prevention and mental health that will ultimately save lives.
But we have a long way to go.
Although honest conversation surrounding suicide and mental health seems to be on the rise, suicide rates have been steadily increasing in every state except Nevada for the past twenty years. Suicide must be treated as more than a conversation – it is a public health crisis and a leading cause of death in the United states. At UT Health Austin, our team of clinical social workers specialize in helping patients manage chronic illness, the stress, anxiety and logistic process that surround diagnoses, relationships and mental health.
September is National Suicide Prevention Month. Here are a few facts about suicide in the United States that you should know:
- Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the 2nd leading cause of death among people age 10 to 34 and the 4th leading cause of death among people ages 35 to 54.
- Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are at the highest risk of suicide.
- For every female death by suicide, there are proximately 3.4 male deaths by suicide.
- A recent study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than half of transgender male teens and 29.2 percent of transgender female teens who participated in the survey had attempted suicide at least once in their lives.
- According to the CDC, one death by suicide occurs every 12 minutes in the U.S.
- An estimated 16.2 million adults in the United States (6.7 percent of the adult population) suffer from at least one major depressive episode in a given year.
Suicide Risk Factors and Warning Signs
There is no single cause of suicide, and we may never truly know what goes on in an individual’s mind leading up to death by suicide. However, there are many verbal and behavioral warning signs that may indicate a loved one needs urgent help.
Verbal. People who intend to die by suicide often repeat several common statements. They may describe themselves as a burden on others, say life isn’t worth living, they have no purpose and tell loved ones they would be better off without them. Others may speak openly about wanting to kill themselves, and all of these statements should be taken seriously.
Behavioral. Suicide is often planned, and suicidal individuals may take certain noticeable actions in preparation that can indicate they need help before the situation progresses. If you notice a loved one suffering from a mental health disorder giving away their prized possessions, paying off debts, creating or changing a will, making amends in damaged relationships or anything that seems like a sudden shift towards tying up loose ends, this may be a cause for concern. Other behavioral signs a person may have suicidal ideation include increased use of drugs or alcohol, sleeping too much or not at all, sudden calmness, sudden changes in mannerisms and personal appearance (for example, a sudden lack of regard for hygiene) or acting agitated or anxious.
Experiencing any of these environmental risk factors does not mean a person will take their life, but those who have a suicidal intention combined with one or more of these risk factors may have an increased chance of death: exposure to another person’s suicide, devastating life events like divorce, financial crisis or loss of a loved one, access to lethal means like drugs and firearms and enduring prolonged bullying or harassment.
What should you do when someone confides in you?
Twenty years ago, thoughts and warning signs of suicide were limited to verbal expressions and behavior. Now, it’s not uncommon for those at risk of suicide to post about their feelings on social media, and this is uncharted territory.
You are never helpless when you see a post about self-harm or suicide on a social media platform, whether the post comes from someone you know or a stranger, and someone who is in your neighborhood or on the other side of the world. Every major social media platform has a reporting system in place for suicidal content, and reporting suicidal posts has saved lives.
You can find links to all major social media platforms’ self-harm and suicide reporting systems here:
It cannot be overemphasized that many people who die by suicide express this intention to someone else at some point before death, so if someone tells you they have suicidal ideation (whether directly or indirectly and on social media or in person), always take it seriously and never assume this is a cry for attention. This does not mean you alone are responsible for handling this situation. In fact, any person who expresses suicidal ideation needs professional help. Encourage your loved ones to seek professional help, and offer to take steps for them when they lack the energy or motivation by researching mental health providers, crisis centers and support groups in your community.
Reassure this person they can confide in you. Because so many who are at risk of suicide feel they are a burden to those around them, the person who has confided in you may feel they’ve caused you extreme distress by sharing this information. Remind this person that you are there for them emotionally and that they should not feel shame or guilt about their feelings. Don’t try to tell someone to think about how their actions could hurt their mother, father, friends, siblings or any loved ones. While well-intended, this is a common mistake and may contribute to a suicidal person’s feelings that their loved ones would be better off without them.
Do not promise to keep anyone’s suicidal thoughts confidential. While you can be there emotionally for a loved one with suicidal ideation, you cannot promise to keep their feelings a secret. They should know that if their life is in danger, you will seek help. This may even emphasize how much you value that person and have a lasting positive impact.
Remove potentially lethal items from that person’s access. If possible, remove items like firearms, drugs, razors knives or rope from the home of a person who is feeling suicidal, or encourage that person to have someone they trust hold onto those dangerous items for them until they are in a safer mental space.
If you believe someone is in immediate danger, seek help immediately. Do not leave that person alone and call 911.