Signs of Suicide Ideation Aren't Always Easy to Spot — Experts Share What to Look Out For
Content Warning: This article contains mention of suicide and suicide ideation. Please proceed thoughtfully.
Suicide is a serious public health concern. Stories like tWitch's and Meghan Markle's are a poignant reminder that many people will confront suicidal thoughts at some point in their lives. In fact, in 2020, an estimated 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, according to the CDC. And it's the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 34.
While those stats can be terrifying, there are steps you can take to look after your loved ones and friends. POPSUGAR asked two psychologists how to spot the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide and what you can do to help.
Signs That Someone Is Struggling With Suicidal Ideation
"Sometimes a friend will tell you that they're considering suicide, and other times, changes in their behavior may let you know that they are struggling," Fatima Watt, PsyD, director of behavioral health services at Franciscan Children's in Massachusetts, tells POPSUGAR. Watch for these potential red flags:
- Talking about wanting to die or kill themselves, or having no reason to live
- Talking, writing, or drawing about suicide, even jokingly
- Exploring ways to kill themselves by doing research or gathering supplies
- Expressing feelings of hopelessness
- Withdrawing or isolating themselves
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol or other reckless behavior
- Increased anxiety, agitation, or panic
- Extreme mood swings
- Noticeable changes in eating or sleeping
- Giving away precious belongings
Nazanin Moali, PhD, owner of Oasis2Care in Los Angeles, adds: "One of [the] major signs that someone is contemplating suicide is when they talk about death and how the lives of others will be different if they are not around. Some of the common themes for these individuals are feeling trapped and not being able to identify a sense of purpose."
How to Help Someone Who's Having Suicidal Thoughts
Dr. Watt stresses the importance of taking warning signs seriously and showing a friend or loved one empathy, even if you don't completely understand what they're going through. "Stressful events, such as a fight or breakup, may seem trivial, but to your friend, the pain can feel immense," Dr. Watt says. Minimizing their pain or dismissing their behavior as attention-seeking can cause them to feel even more hopeless.
Start the conversation by reminding them how much you care about them. "Describe what you have been noticing, and offer to be a listening ear. Sometimes, just knowing that others care may reduce the feeling of hopelessness and isolation," Dr. Moali tells POPSUGAR. She also recommends asking a friend directly if they've thought about ending their lives, adding that this question doesn't "put the idea in their head" or increase the likelihood of them attempting suicide.
This next step is important if someone you love is, in fact, experiencing suicidal ideation: "Sympathize, but do not promise to keep it a secret," Dr. Watt says.
Instead, take steps to ensure they get professional help. If the person is young, encourage them to reach out to a trusted adult, and give them the number for the National Suicide and Crisis Hotline: 988. You can even help them set up an appointment with a therapist and offer to go with them to the first session if they want your support. "Remember that neither of you has to face this alone," Dr. Watt says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicide ideation, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources available including a helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6424). You can also dial 988, the nation's suicide and crisis hotline.