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How Can You Tell if Someone You Love is Suicidal?

As a mental health professional, it is not uncommon for people to ask me this question.  Given the recent, very public news of the suicide deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, this question seems to be at the forefront of many peoples’ minds.  Hearing family and friends of a suicide victim talk about being completely shocked by the suicidal act is a scary reminder that it is hard to detect suicidal ideation.  You might think that those loved ones that are closest to a person suffering from depression might easily recognize the warning signs, but that’s not always the case. The truth is that while there are typically warning signs, they do not always take the form that we expect. 

Certainly, things like the loss of interest in activities, an increase or decrease in sleep or food intake, withdrawal from social support, lack of basic self-care, and extreme sadness or hopelessness are often present in suicidal individuals.  However, other warning signs could include increases in substance use, uncharacteristic irritation and anger, reckless behavior or a noticeable peace and happiness after a long bout of turmoil.  While the signs are not always easy to spot, you should pay attention to any large marked shifts in mood.  Verbalized feelings of helplessness and hopelessness or feelings that the individual is damaged and will never recover should also raise red flags.  In addition, the giving away of prized possessions or a reconnection with a lot of important people from the past, as if to resolve relationships, are major indicators of suicidal ideation.

So what should you do if you suspect that someone you love may be suicidal?  Some people say that talking to someone about suicide “puts the idea in their head”.  That’s a myth.  My advice is to be direct and ask your loved one if they are thinking of committing suicide.  Express your concern and your sincere desire to help.  Approach the conversation with as much empathy as possible, even if you do not understand the desire to end their life.  A person who you suspect of being suicidal should not be left alone.  If you cannot stay with them, try to arrange for someone else to stay with them.  You cannot assist a suicidal loved one alone.  Seek professional help to get them through this crisis.  The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).  They have the resources and suggestions to help your loved one and you in an immediate crisis.  It is always better to call for help and potentially anger your loved one than to do nothing and potentially lose them forever.


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