Understanding the Warning Signs of Suicide

July 17, 2019

While suicide may be uncomfortable to discuss, recent information disclosed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes it evident that there needs to be ongoing and increased dialogue about suicide.

In June 2018, the CDC released findings that showed that the overall rate of suicide in the United States increased 25.4 percent between 1999 and 2016. During that same 17-year period, the suicide rate in Kansas increased by 45 percent. In 2016 alone, nearly 45,000 people in the United States died by suicide. The CDC noted that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in Americans ages 10 and over.

Suicide occurs for many different and individualized reasons. The wide range of contributors to suicide make it challenging to fully prevent. A lot of suicide prevention efforts are focused on identifying and providing treatment for persons who have an identified mental health concern. These efforts are important and needed, but are not enough. According to the CDC, researchers found that more than half of the people who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death.

Prevention efforts need to be expanded to include everyone in the community. Increased discussion about the warning signs of suicide may lead someone to feel better equipped to step in and assist when they have concerns that someone they know may be experiencing thoughts of suicide. In fact, about 80 percent of people who attempt suicide show some warning signs first, according to the Washington State Suicide Prevention Plan. Understanding what these warning signs are can help family, friends and health care providers support a person who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts before these thoughts turn into action. Some warning signs may require emergency mental healthcare while other warning signs require additional information gathering and monitoring.

According to the American Association of Suicidology, acute warning signs that may require emergency mental healthcare include:

  • When someone is making threats to hurt or kill themselves
  • Talking or writing about death, dying, or suicide, especially when these actions are out of the ordinary
  • When someone is looking for ways to kill self by seeking access to firearms, available medication or other means.

Additional warning signs include:

  • Increased substance (alcohol or drug) use
  • Purposelessness: someone identifying that there is no reason to live, no sense of purpose in life
  • Anxiety: increased anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all of the time
  • Feeling trapped: feeling as if there is no way out
  • Hopelessness
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, and/or society
  • Rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge
  • Acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking
  • Dramatic mood changes

If warning signs are present, it is important to be respectful and caring when approaching the subject of suicide. It is necessary that the person be asked directly if they are having thoughts of suicide. Asking directly about suicide, in a respectful manner, shows the person, who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide, that someone cares and that it is safe to discuss suicide. This can bring relief for a person who may be experiencing thoughts of suicide but was uncomfortable or unsure how to bring the topic up on their own.

Washington State’s Suicide Prevention Plan was created on several key principles. One of these principles is that suicide is a preventable public health problem, not a personal weakness or family failure. Another principle is that everyone has a role in suicide prevention and that suicide prevention is not the responsibility of the healthcare system alone. These two principles are highlighted as a way to encourage everyone, no matter what profession, to be aware of the warning signs of suicide and to be willing to ask the question about suicide in a direct and respectful manner when warning signs are present. The hope is that everyone will feel that they can contribute to suicide prevention by being aware of the warning signs, asking directly about suicide when there is concern and then referring to local resources if and when this is needed.

Seek Help, Save a Life

If warning signs of suicidal behavior are observed, it is best to seek help as soon as possible by contacting any of the following local or national resources:

Prairie View Crisis Line

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line

Trevor Project Lifeline (LGBTQIA)

Brent Ide is a licensed specialist clinical social worker and member of the Access Services team at Prairie View’s Newton office. He is certified in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST).

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide Rates Rising Across the U.S. (2018) https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2018/p0607-suicide-prevention.html

American Association of Suicidology. Know the Warning Signs of Suicide. http://www.suicidology.org/resources/warning-signs

Washington State Suicide Prevention Plan (2016). Washington Department of Health. Retrieved from doh.wa.gov