Suicide is a tragic public health problem that negatively affects millions of Americans every year. It is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. The good news is it is preventable if the warning signs are recognized. It is important for the entire public, but especially health care providers and educators, to be able to recognize the warning signs of an impending suicide attempt.
The path to someone choosing to attempt suicide can be complicated and it is different for every person. Common reasons for wanting to commit suicide include too much stress, bullying, financial problems, and extreme depression, or a combination of the above. These stressors can exacerbate and trigger warning signs of a suicide attempt.
These warning signs are where a person known as a “gatekeeper” should take notice and then take action. A gatekeeper is someone who regularly comes in contact with an individual and knows them well. For example, a guidance counselor or teacher would be the gatekeeper for a population of students, or a parent would be the gatekeeper for their kids. If they notice something wrong or a student/child behaving differently than normal then they know it is time to take preventative steps to reduce the chance of a person committing or attempting suicide.
Common warning signs of a possible suicide attempt include: a loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, appearing to feel hopeless, writing about death or dying, talking about death, and mentioning suicide even in passing. A gatekeeper should easily be able to recognize these kinds of changes in a person’s behavior.
In addition to the above warning signs, a person contemplating suicide may increase their alcohol or drug use. Alcohol abuse especially needs to be dealt with in a swift manor as it increases feelings of depression and hopelessness, which can lead to an individual attempting suicide sooner than they originally planned. If a person is threatening suicide you must immediately remove their access to alcohol and other drugs.
Removing a suicidal person’s access to means of killing themselves is also very important. Firearms are the most dangerous item for an at risk individual to have access to. It is the most commonly used method of committing suicide in the U.S. Any dangerous weapons as well as medications and car keys should be removed from the person’s possession or locked up in a safe. This helps prevent an impulsive suicide decision when the individual is experiencing intense psychological pain. If there is no easy access to a means of ending ones life, it prevents rash, split-second decisions that have permanent consequences.
Once a person is identified as being at risk for suicide, it is time to intervene. There are several methods for doing this, but the most widely used and well known method is Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR for short). Question refers to openly asking a person if the suicide warning signs they are showing should be of concern to the people who care about them. This single handedly opens the door to more dialogue, which may defuse the situation and lead to a sense of hope for the at risk individual. Persuade is when you encourage the person to seek professional help. If persuading doesn’t work, then it is time to refer the individual to a professional. If the individual is a minor or adolescent it is important to contact their parents, minister, teacher, or counselor and alert them to the situation.
Suicide hotlines are a method of suicide prevention available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A simple phone call to one of these crisis lines gives you access to a counselor who can provide confidential help. This kind of help may be all it takes to immediately defuse a potentially deadly situation. People who are thinking about attempting suicide as well as those who are seeking advice or help for a family member or friend thinking about suicide are encouraged to call for help whenever the need arises.
It has been determined that adolescents who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender, or Questioning (LGBTQ) are at an increased risk of suicide. They are often subjected to more bullying while at school, and may not feel accepted in social groups. This can lead to severe depression and eventually a suicide attempt if the warning signs are not identified.
It is vital for the gatekeepers (counselors, teachers, and nurses) at high schools (as well as the parents) to have training to be aware of the warning signs of a bullied teen. These warning signs include a loss of interest in or fear of going to school, appearing anxious when asked about school, few or no friends, problems sleeping, and coming home from school with unexplained scrapes or bruises.
It is estimated that about half of all children will be bullied at some time while they are in school. Around ten percent of children suffer from repeated bullying. That is quite a large number of children being subjected to unnecessary emotional and physical distress. Teaching your children how to avoid bullies, and tactics to deal with bullying situations will give them necessary tools to circumvent the whole problem. However, if a bully is still a problem for the child, it’s time to talk to the child’s teacher, counselor, and principal to get the problem resolved.
Suicide is not an easy topic to talk about, but knowing how to recognize warning signs and what to do to if a suicide attempt is imminent can help you save a life. Taking the time to learn prevention techniques is an invaluable asset that could just be the most important knowledge you ever gain.