September is National Suicide Prevention Month and a time to raise awareness about how we can all play a part in helping to prevent suicide. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the U.S. for young people aged 10-14 and people aged 25-34. In Utah, it is the leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds—leading many to refer to it as an epidemic among young people.
Suicide is a tragedy, but there is hope in the fact that many suicides can be prevented by caring individuals who recognize the red flags indicating that someone may be suffering and contemplating suicide.
Mindy Westlund Schreiner, PhD, an instructor and clinical psychologist at Huntsman Mental Health Institute at University of Utah Health, shares information about possible warning signs, how to respond, and where to get help.
"There's no single cause for suicide," Schreiner says. "There are individual factors such as depression and chronic illness, as well as broader societal factors including poverty, bullying, and discrimination. Fortunately, care and support from loved ones can make a difference for not only suicide but also many mental health difficulties."
Major Red Flags
If you are concerned a person may be contemplating suicide, look for a change in behavior or entirely new behaviors. This is more concerning if the new or changed behavior is related to a loss, change, or difficult event. Most people who take their lives may exhibit one or more warning signs.
Many signs often indicate that someone is at risk for suicide. Not all of the behaviors on the list may be present, but even one of these behaviors may be a red flag:
- Withdrawing socially
- Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
- Sudden decrease in school performance and behavior issues
- Drop in work performance
- Changes in hygiene and appearance
- Increased irritability
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or that one is a burden to others
- Talk of death or dying or not wanting to be around anymore
- Researching possible methods for suicide
Lesser-Known Red Flags
Some suicidal behaviors are not quite as overt and may not be fully apparent to those close to the struggling person. These behaviors include:
- Lack of concern for safety
- Unsafe driving
- Increased use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting more impulsively
Responding to Red Flags
When you are concerned that someone is at risk for suicide, Schreiner recommends that you keep three things in mind:
- Be calm and nonjudgmental. Often, fear or anxiety can look a lot like disappointment or anger. This can be misinterpreted by the person you are talking to.
- Be direct and ask the questions. It is important to ask directly, "Do you or have you had thoughts of suicide?" Contrary to popular belief, research has consistently shown that asking if someone is suicidal does not increase suicide risk. Instead, evidence suggests that it may decrease suicide risk.
- Be collaborative. "Remember that who you are talking to is not a problem to be solved but a person to be helped," Schreiner says. "Suicidal thoughts often come from feeling very alone and disconnected from others. This is an opportunity to work together and let them know they don't have to work through this alone."
Ask questions such as "How can I best support or help you?" or "What have you found helpful in the past?" While they might not have an answer, examples of helpful things may include helping them find resources, contacting a crisis resource with them, or even simply being a listening ear or physically present.
People who struggle with suicidal thoughts need to find someone they trust. This person may be a family member, mental health professional, teacher, clergy member, school counselor, coach, doctor, or anyone else they feel comfortable opening up to.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is always a free resource available 24/7, 365 days a year. Other resources include the Utah Warm Line, 833-SPEAKUT, for when things don't feel like a crisis, and the SafeUT app for students, National Guard Members, and frontline workers who live in Utah.
"Many people don't realize that these resources are also available to people who may be concerned about a loved one and not just for the person in crisis," Schreiner says. "It can be hard to be a source of support for someone struggling, so it is important to know that there are resources available to help."