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Sharp Health News

Recognizing the warning signs of suicide

Aug. 23, 2019

Recognizing the warning signs of suicide

It's a difficult subject for many to discuss. Yet suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. among all ages. Knowing the warning signs of suicide and how to prevent it could save a life.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there is no single cause for suicide, but there are some warning signs to look out for:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or exhibiting signs of isolation
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

In addition, Charles Westfall, manager of adult outpatient services at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, explains how the following risk factors can heighten the chance that a person may try to take their own life.

Health conditions that increase risk of suicide:

  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Substance abuse disorder
  • Chronic health conditions

"Especially for people with mental health conditions, a combination of medications and talk therapy is critical," says Westfall. "If symptoms aren't well-managed, the illness can alter the interaction between the individual and their environment. This is why the management of risk factors is so important, because events in one's life can really destabilize someone, creating an episode with worsening symptoms."

Environmental factors that increase risk of suicide:

  • Stressful life events that create significant distress, such as relational conflicts, job loss or events resulting in feeling overwhelmed
  • Access to lethal means, including firearms and drugs
  • Exposure to another person's suicide

"Losses of varying kinds or trauma can lead to deep emotional pain," says Westfall. "When this form of psychological pain or suffering, even historical, is paired with current stressors, the individual's psychological pain threshold is potentially exceeded. Therefore, suicide is often sought for relief. It is important to listen to what people say, and seek intervention, so alternative forms of relief can be found."

Historical factors that increase risk of suicide:

  • Previous suicide attempts
  • Family history of suicide attempts

"Previous suicide attempts and a family history of deaths by suicide are very significant risk factors, regardless of mental health condition or environmental factors," says Westfall. "For many people, the lethality of their attempts increase each time. The combination of environmental circumstances and the individual's interpretation of events can increase risk."

If someone you know is exhibiting warning signs or risk factors of suicide, taking action as soon as possible is critical.

Think of the situation as a silent emergency, and follow these steps:

  1. Connect with the person and share your concerns.
  2. Ask the person directly, "Are you thinking of killing yourself?"
  3. Encourage the person to get help or offer to get help for them.
  4. Assist in restricting access to lethal means, like firearms.
  5. Create a safety plan with phone numbers of people to call in case the person starts having suicidal thoughts.
  6. If it seems that the person may harm themselves, do not leave the person alone. Take them to the nearest emergency room or dial 911.

For additional assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.

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