When Someone You Know May Be At Risk for Suicide

Life is full of rough patches. When troubles seem overwhelming, and it feels as if there’s no way out, most people rely on their own strengths and the support of others to get through the darkness and emerge stronger and more resilient. Unfortunately, some are not able to overcome their pain and suffering, and they may think about harming themselves.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death among Americans. It’s the third leading cause of death for teenagers, after accidents and homicide. And it’s the second leading cause of death for service members, after war injuries. Statistically, for every person who dies by suicide, there are ten others who make an attempt.

Whether it’s a service member, a military family member, a good friend or an aging parent, the signs and symptoms revealed by a person contemplating suicide can be easily overlooked. Educating yourself about the warning signs of suicide and how to help someone who’s hurting can be the first steps to saving a person’s life.

Warning signs of suicide

There can be many warning signs that a person considering suicide may communicate, either consciously or unconsciously. These are a few common ones:

  • Feeling hopeless or trapped, like there’s no way out
  • Having increased anxiety, agitation, sleeplessness, or mood swings
  • Feeling like there is no reason to live
  • Experiencing increasing rage or anger
  • Engaging in risky activities without thinking
  • Having increasing alcohol or drug abuse
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Feeling overwhelming guilt or shame

Those at greatest risk and needing immediate attention are preoccupied with death. They may have made detailed plans for their suicide, put their affairs in order, given away possessions or acquired lethal means such as a weapon or prescription drugs. Find out more about suicide risk factors and warning signs from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the National Institute of Mental Health and the Defense Suicide Prevention Office (with links to service branch suicide prevention programs).

What you can do

If you notice any of the warning signs of suicide in a friend or family member, it’s important to speak up. Don’t be afraid to ask bluntly “Have you been thinking of killing yourself?” If the answer is “yes,” follow-up by asking “Do you have a plan?” This will help you determine the right course and the urgency of the situation. If you’re not sure what to do next, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). If the person you’re concerned about is a service member or veteran, press 1 for the Military Crisis Line. The worst thing you can do is nothing at all.

Encouraging a troubled individual to talk about painful feelings is not easy, but it can provide the opportunity for relief from pent-up despair and reduce the risk of a suicide attempt. When talking with a person you think might be suicidal:

  • Let the person know that you care and that he or she is not alone.
  • Listen attentively and permit the person’s expressions of despair or rage no matter how painful they might seem.
  • Reassure the person that suicidal feelings are temporary and help in getting past them is available.
  • Try to be calm, sympathetic and accepting, and avoid giving advice, arguing, making judgments or minimizing the person’s feelings.

Resources and support

Parents, spouses, children, extended family members and friends all have a role in helping a person who is considering suicide. Research demonstrates that having supportive relationships is a major protective factor in preventing suicide. Having reliable sources of information and professional support are also important protective factors.

Service members and military family members have the support of the military health system for assessment, treatment, and counseling of the person at risk for suicide. Your installation Family Support Center and Military OneSource can provide information, referrals and support for the family and friends of a suicidal person. Your military chaplain or civilian faith community can offer spiritual guidance.

Online information is also available to help individuals boost their resilience and strengthen their physical, behavioral, relationship, and spiritual health, which then helps them prevent or overcome the emotional pain that can lead to thoughts of suicide. Be sure to check out Total Force Fitness and the Real Warriors--Building Resilience information. These resources address the needs of military family members as well as service members.

If the person you’re concerned about is not part of the larger military community, resources are available in civilian communities. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or a crisis hotline in the person’s local area, and ask for help.

Remember, when a suicide attempt seems imminent, the time for talking may have passed. Call 911 or take the person to an emergency room. Remove weapons, drugs and any other lethal objects, but do not ever leave a suicidal person alone.


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