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Suicide Prevention: Determining if Someone is Suicidal

Written by, Kate Oliver, MSW, LCSW-C

Man thinking on a train journey.

Man thinking on a train journey. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Over the years, I have talked to many, many parents, partners, and spouses about what to do if you think someone you love might be suicidal. There are really two parts to figuring out about suicide, 1. determining whether someone is indeed suicidal, and 2. if the person is suicidal, figuring out the level of risk and making sure they are safe. I am going to tackle one section a week so stay tuned for next weeks post. I want to state at the beginning of this post that, of course, my advice here is general and should not be substituted for individualized mental health advice. If you absolutely know someone is suicidal, please take them to the nearest emergency room or contact your local mental health hotline. And, if you are reading this post because you have someone you are concerned about, even if they are not suicidal, please do your best to encourage and support them in seeking therapy as soon as possible. There are mental health services available to many in the United States even if you are under-insured or are not able to afford counseling.

Determining whether someone is suicidal

There are times when you absolutely know someone is suicidal, either you found a note, they told you they were, you find them in the process of attempting, etc. But other times it can be more difficult. Sometimes parents tell me they think their adolescent is saying they want to die in order to get attention. If this is happening, please stop for a moment to think how desperate you have to feel about getting attention in order to say this. I want to make sure that you know that, even with young children, any indication that someone is suicidal needs to be taken seriously. Even if you think they are trying to get attention, don’t you think it would be a good idea to give them some if things have gotten this extreme? I’ve actually come to know of quite a few people via the work that I do who have tried to “get attention” by attempting suicide in the hopes that someone would notice them. I wonder how many suicides are just that, someone thinking they are doing something to get attention but they actually end up dying. Pay attention! Here is what I recommend to all parents who tell me that their child is saying they are going to kill themselves for attention. Tell them you need to take any statement like that seriously and ask if they are serious. If they say that they are, take them to the hospital. Here’s the thing, I know you might say to yourself, “I don’t want to waste the time of the hospital personnel” or, “This kid is trying to waste my time.” Take them to the hospital. Tell them you love them and that you have to take this threat seriously. Sit with them for the hours it takes to be seen. If they are not suicidal, they will be so bored and so over it that by the time you have finished with it, they will never want to have to do that again. You will have nipped a nasty reaction in the bud. The alternative when you take them to the hospital is finding out that they were, in fact, serious and you took them right where they needed to be anyway.

Here’s the thing about the hospital. They are busy. They don’t want to take your child, your friend, spouse, etc. unless they think they need to. Just like they are not looking to keep people for any extra time after surgery, they are not looking to take in people who do not actually need to be there, so please do not worry, the person you take will not be admitted unless they need to be, in which case, you did the right thing.

Warning signs

Other times, you may have someone who you care about who you fear may be suicidal and not telling. Maybe they have had a series of unfortunate circumstances or are having a mental health issue, like a depressive episode. Here are some warning signs that a person is more likely to consider suicide as an option:

  • They have had recent loss such as a death in the family, ending of a significant relationship or loss of a job.
  • They have a history of depression. Depression is characterized in adolescents differently than it is in adults. Adults tend to have a loss of interest in their usual activities, difficulty attending to tasks, a sense of hopelessness. In children and adolescents, depression more often manifests as irritability and anger.
  • They have friends or family members who have committed suicide.
  • They have mentioned, even just in passing, that they should just kill themselves, or that they wish they could die. Sometimes they may talk about everyone being better off without them.
  • They suddenly begin giving away important items you would not expect them to give away and seem to be suddenly peaceful after a period of difficulty.
  • They begin to isolate themselves from friends and family members.
  • They have increased alcohol or drug use and/or impulsive or reckless behaviors.
  • They have previously attempted suicide in the past.

If you notice any of these symptoms, please take these next steps to ensure that your loved one is safe. Better safe than sorry, as they say. It is especially true in this case.

Stay tuned, next week I will write about what to do to support someone if you fear they are suicidal. In the meantime, here are a few resources.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

How to Know When You or Your Child Need a Therapist (help4yourfamily.com)

October 4, 2012 - Posted by | keeping children safe, Suicide | , , , , , , ,

9 Comments »

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  2. […] Last weeks post examined how to determine whether someone is actually suicidal. This week, I want to give you general guidance should you ever have someone you know who is actively suicidal. As I said last week, the hospital is the place to be for anyone who is suicidal, however, there are a few measures you might want to take if you are on the fence about how serious the feelings are that your loved one is experiencing. This post is not intended in any way to constitute medical advice. I strongly urge you to call a mental health professional or suicide prevention hotline if you are having these concerns. […]

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