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What to do if you think someone is suicidal

Suicide, the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, knows no boundaries. Suicide doesn't care how old you are, what ethnicity you are or your gender. Suicide doesn't even care if you're rich and famous, as evidenced by celebrities like Robin Williams, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that more than 47,000 Americans took their own lives in 2017 and another estimated 1.4 million people attempted suicide. And these are just the reported numbers; the stigma surrounding suicide surely means it's underreported, so the numbers are likely even higher.

“We never know what someone else is thinking,” says Carrie Hebel, PMHNP-BC, a nurse practitioner who specializes in psychiatric and mental health at PrimeCare Clinic in Columbia. “If we learn the signs and pay close attention, we’re much more likely to recognize and act on the cues. Understanding this is imperative if we want to be part of the efforts to prevent suicide.”

As suicide rates continue to rise each year, it's possible that we all know someone who is suicidal. Here are a few tips that may help if you think someone is considering suicide:

  • Know the warning signs. If someone is talking about wanting to die that's a huge red flag. They may also express feelings of hopelessness or say they have no reason to live. People who are exhibiting extreme mood swings or reckless behavior may also be at risk.
  • Ask questions. Yes, some of your queries might seem sensitive and difficult to ask, but you can't worry about hurting someone's feelings when you're concerned about their life. Ask questions like: "How are you coping with what's happening in your life?" or "Have you thought about hurting yourself?" or "Do you have access to weapons?"
  • Offer unconditional support. Let them know you're worried and you think they need help. Don't make judgmental or patronizing comments like "things could be worse" or "you have a lot to live for." Give them the number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline and stay with them while they call. If they're willing to talk to a mental health professional, offer to drive them there. You can even offer to do some research for them to find a counselor and/or support group.
  • If they're unwilling to seek help, take action. Suicidal thoughts are an emergency; you're not overreacting. Call the suicide hotline yourself — or even 911 — and get other friends and family involved right away. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Carrie Hebel, PMHNP-BC,

is a nurse practitioner with certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center in psychiatric and mental health across the lifespan. She practices at PrimeCare Clinic in Columbia, Tennessee.


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Date Last Reviewed: May 2, 2019
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
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