Suicide Prevention: How We Talk About It Matters

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. Each year, almost 45,000 Americans die by suicide.

Many of us have been affected by a person’s suicide, whether it was a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. We hear about it. We talk about it. When it is someone in the public eye, journalists write about it.

Some people believe that talking about suicide will encourage people to think more about killing themselves. It’s a tricky situation that can be frightening to think about: what to say when someone is in crisis.

The truth is: Facing this difficult topic actually helps prevent it by bringing it out in the open.

Care enough to be there.

When friends or loved ones talk about feelings or the desire to end their life, take them seriously. Really listen and don’t judge or brush away their concerns. Let them know you care.

If they have a specific plan for how they will do it, tell someone you trust who can connect them to resources and get them the help they need. Being informed and approachable lets them know they can talk to you.

“The recent data from the Centers for Disease Control revealed that more than half of the individuals who commit suicide do not have a diagnosed psychiatric illness,” says Dr. Charles Nemeroff, chief of psychiatry at the University of Miami Health System and a member of the board of directors of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “This means that the majority of suicide victims never came to the attention of mental health professionals.”
“Yet, we know from past studies that more than 90 percent of suicide victims suffer from depression and/or other psychiatric disorders,” he says.
“This highlights the importance of recognition of psychiatric disorders as a prerequisite to suicide prevention. These disorders are medical conditions, not unlike any other medical disorder, such as diabetes or cancer.”

Be on the lookout.
If your friend or loved one starts acting strangely or exhibiting new behaviors, that may be the time to have this conversation or get them to talk to someone connected to the resources to help them. Most people who are seriously considering harming themselves exhibit one or more warning signs.

Communication: A person who talks about killing him or herself, feeling hopeless, being a burden to others or having no reason to live should put you on alert.

Actions: Behaviors that change, especially if related to a painful loss or event, may be a clue. Those may include:

  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Searching online for methods to end their life
  • Withdrawing from activities, family and friends
  • Sleeping more or complaining of extreme fatigue
  • Telling people goodbye
  • Giving prized possessions to others, without specific occasion or reason

Common Risk Factors for Suicide:
Mental health conditions
like depression, substance abuse or bipolar disorder, serious health conditions, chronic pain, and traumatic brain injury may make someone more susceptible to thoughts of suicide. Certain medications list suicidal thoughts as a potential side effect. Talk to a doctor if you have any concerns about someone’s medications.

Environmental factors like access to stressful events, exposure to another person’s attempts or suicidal act may heighten risk of thoughts. Access to firearms or other lethal means is also a concern.

A history of suicide attempts – either by the individual or by that person’s family member – or abuse or other traumas may make the person more vulnerable to suicidal thoughts.

Depression and other mental illnesses are treatable. Ending the stigma of mental illness is vital to helping those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts. Together we can support and get timely help to people who think ending their lives is their only solution.

How we talk about suicide can be helpful – or hurtful:
Here are some important tips from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

  1. When talking about suicide, always mention that there is help available for people thinking about suicide, like help lines and mental health resources.
  2. Don’t assume the act was caused by some event, such as a job loss or divorce. Research shows no one takes their life for one single reason, but rather a combination of factors.
  3. Be hopeful and optimistic – together, we can reduce the rate of suicide if each of us is aware of signs and symptoms and knows where to seek help.

Important Resources:

If you or someone you know is having thoughts about suicide or has demonstrated some of the behaviors listed here, find more helpful information through the following resources.



Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News Blog.