Recognizing the Signs of Suicide and How to Help

By Will Skalecki, NAMI UW-Madison

September is suicide prevention month. The majority of people who struggle with suicidal thoughts suffer from diagnosable mental illnesses that, while serious, are treatable. Here, we identify steps that can be taken to help others who may be struggling.


There are many symptoms that may indicate a change in mood or increased suicidal ideation. These include talking about feeling hopeless or lacking purpose, talking about feeling trapped or in pain, using alcohol or drugs more often, being more anxious or behaving more recklessly, changes in sleeping patterns, and withdrawing from social activities. Individuals who have recently experienced a job loss, death of a loved one, a breakup or serious financial problems are also at an increased risk of suicide (SPRC).


Once you have recognized that someone may be having suicidal thoughts or struggling, the next step is to talk with them about it. However, it can be difficult to know how to talk to someone about mental health issues. Seize The Awkward, a campaign aimed at teaching young people how to talk about mental health, recommends starting the conversation with open-ended questions, such as “is everything OK?” Some people may be scared to talk about problems openly, and it is helpful to make “I” statements based on one’s observations:

For example, “I feel that your mind is elsewhere when we are together,” or “I am concerned about you.” If the individual does not want to talk, it is important to keep the lines of communication open by letting them know you are there to talk with them whenever they want.

If they want to talk, it is important to ask open-ended questions and let them take the lead in the conversation. The most important thing is to be someone that listens, not someone who tries to solve their problems. Though the topic can be difficult, research has shown that asking someone if they are suicidal will not make them more likely to attempt suicide. Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway patrolman who worked in crisis intervention with suicidal individuals, recommends confronting the issue head-on by saying: “Others in similar circumstances have thought about ending their lives. Have you had these thoughts?”


The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1800-273-8255, offers 24/7 support for those in crisis. It also may help for them to join a support group, or to be admitted to a program at a behavioral health hospital. It may also help to develop a safety plan with the person: a list of people they can call or other resources they can turn to when they are having suicidal thoughts. It is important as well to follow up with the person at a later date to see how they are doing.


If someone is talking of ending their life and has a method planned, do not leave them alone. Stay with them and call 911 or take them to the nearest emergency room. In crisis situations, it is important to get help from a trained professional as soon as possible.

It can be difficult to know how to discuss suicide, and scary to be with someone who is having suicidal thoughts. However, by knowing the warning signs, knowing how to broach the topic, and knowing what to do if the individual is in crisis, you will be better prepared for discussing suicide when someone could really use your help.