When I was 15, a childhood friend committed suicide. In the weeks leading up to his suicide, he showed a few signs we didn’t recognize at the time. He isolated himself from his friends, staying home from school. However, just a few days before he passed, he returned to school in a buoyant mood — laughing and joking with us. We mistakenly thought his dark times had passed and that he was returning to his “normal” self. Then we got the phone call we had feared so much.
A few days before he passed, he returned to school in a buoyant mood. We mistakenly thought his dark times had passed.
A 2022 study found that “nearly 800,000 people die from suicide yearly” around the world. The pandemic has only served to worsen the situation. In 2020 there were over 1.2 million suicide attempts in America alone, though this number has declined in 2021, defying expectations. Still though, “suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States. This is about one death every 11 minutes.”
America loses someone to suicide every 11 minutes.
Recognizing the signs of suicide is often difficult. Not everyone exhibits the same signs prior to an attempt, and the time frame of the event can vary. Some take weeks or months to plan, while others more impulsively carry out the act. However, various medical and news organizations have begun to shed light on some of these signs.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, these signs include the following:
- Talking about wanting to die and planning out ways to die
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Feeling empty, hopeless, trapped, or having no reason to live
- Feeling extremely sad, anxious, agitated, or full of rage
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Giving away personal items or making a will
- Taking risks
- Displaying extreme mood swings
- Eating or sleeping more or less
- Using drugs or alcohol more often
These signs can be difficulty to spot, especially in teens and young adults where mood swings and behavioral changes may be the vestiges of growing up. However, with more discussion around these topics, more people are developing the vocabulary for naming what they are feeling and may be more likely to seek help.
The STRONGEST PREDICTOR of a future suicide attempt is a previous suicide attempt.
Suicide is the second most common cause of death in people age 10-14 and 25-34. It’s in the top 9 causes of death for even more people, including those age 10-64 years old. One in five high school students consider suicide and 1 in 10 attempt it. For many people, suicide may feel like the only option. A wide range of forces push them this way, from personal circumstances all the way up to societal ones. Here’s a list of risk factors from the CDC:
- Previous suicide attempts
- History of mental illnesses like depression or substance use
- Serious medical illness
- Legal problems
- Financial problems
- Impulsive or aggressive tendencies
- Victimization as a child and/or as an adult
- Sense of hopelessness
- Family history of suicide
- Loss of relationships
- High conflict or violent relationships
- Social isolation
- Lack of access to healthcare
- Suicide cluster in the community
- Community violence
- Historical trauma
- Stigma associated with help-seeking and mental illness
- Easy access to lethal means of suicide
- Unsafe media portrayals of suicide
Fighting stigma on social media
Social media platforms such as Instagram have also been spreading the word. Accounts such as @realdepressionproject post daily about signs of suicide, reasons one may take one’s life, and what is like to live with various mental health conditions. You’ll find similar content on our social media, @webshrink. The posts ask people to share to raise awareness. This wide-spread effort to increase awareness is key not only to ending the epidemic of suicide, but to decrease the stigma attached to it.
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses and suicide is still prevalent. Calling a suicidal person “weak” for seeking help or labeling suicidal behavior as “attention-seeking” does little to help a person who is suffering. Posts that fight stigma discuss how to help a person who may be contemplating suicide. They recommend checking in on loved ones, especially if they have withdrawn; listening compassionately and creating a safe space for conversation rather than offering advice; and avoiding minimizing the afflicted person’s suffering.
These Dos and Don’ts help loved ones navigate an often-scary situation. These efforts reach millions of people daily. Many of the comments are from people living with various mental illnesses where they share their experiences and their strengths and build a community of support. These sites also provide facts and statistics about suicide and alert the public as to where one can seek further help.
Three stages of suicidality: Ideation, Planning, and Decision
The signs of suicide we have discussed are most prominent during the first two stages. In “ideation,” people are thinking about suicide. They do everything from generally wondering about not existing anymore to having specific thoughts about their own death. When they move to “planning,” they begin making specific plans for how they could end their own lives.
I often think of my friend and wonder if we could have done anything to save him. At 15, I didn’t know the warning signs of suicide and there was no discussion to be had surrounding mental illness, but still I wonder. I’ve learned since then that his cheerful mood in the days preceding his suicide was not uncommon. In fact, it’s a dangerous hallmark that suicide is imminent, that the person has moved into the “decision” stage.
A change to a cheerful mood is a hallmark that suicide is imminent.
Some people planning their suicide feel a sense of peace at their decision. They have decided, and they have accepted this decision and they believe that their pain will soon end. This was the most difficult aspect of my friend’s death. Had we known the warning signs maybe we could have intervened.
The scars of suicide for those who are left are long-reaching and difficult to process. I can say that tremendous strides have been made in raising awareness and lessening stigma, but more needs to be done. Discussions of mental health need to be commonplace among all age groups. Only then will people feel comfortable coming forward about their pain.