"I don't feel life is worth living." "There's no way out of my pain and problems." "It would be easier if I killed myself." It's scary when a loved one expresses suicidal thoughts. But if you can recognize the signs of suicide and offer support and intervention, when needed, your help can potentially save the life of a family member or friend, says Alexander Fan, MD, a psychiatrist at Mission Hospital.
"More than 41,000 people commit suicide each year in America," Dr. Fan states. "For some, the act seems to take place out of the blue, but for others, there are certain cues or precipitating events that can be forerunners of an attempt at suicide."
In observance of National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Dr. Fan offers his insights on what you should know to help loved ones in crisis:
Know the Warning Signs
When a friend says he wants to kill himself, that is an obvious sign of a problem and should not be taken lightly. "But there are other behaviors that should also raise a red flag if you see them," Dr. Fan emphasizes. They include:
- Increased drug or alcohol use
- Mood swings, including aggression or despair
- Feelings of overwhelming guilt, shame or hopelessness
- Retreating from social activities or withdrawing from friends and family
- Giving away personal belongings
- A preoccupation with death, whether spoken or in writing
- Interest in finding a gun, pills or other tools that could be used in a suicide
Know the Risk Factors
"People contemplate suicide for many different reasons that are intensely personal to them, and many factors can come into play," Dr. Fan says. "However, some variables carry a higher risk." Among them:
- Family history of suicide
- A recent tragedy or loss
- A history of abuse
- A mental illness such as depression
- Substance abuse
- Access to guns
- A severe medical condition that causes a great deal of stress
- Social isolation
Know When to Take Action
"If your loved one has any of the high-risk factors, don't hesitate to speak up," Dr. Fan advises. "You should assist him in finding a facility that treats mental health issues. For instance, St. Joseph Health Mission Hospital has a Mental Health & Wellness program that offers inpatient or outpatient care with individualized treatment. That can include medication or psychotherapy such as cognitive behavior therapy, where the patient can examine the roots of harmful thoughts and learn coping skills and new thought patterns."
However, if your loved one makes statements about suicide, that is a psychiatric emergency and he should be taken to an emergency room for immediate treatment, Dr. Fan declares. "Statements about suicide are an emergency whether they are just fantasies or actual plans. If a suicide attempt seems imminent, call 911 so your friend or relative can be taken to the hospital for an emergency psychiatric evaluation."
Finally, if your loved one has attempted suicide before, have a crisis plan in place in case you see a recurrence of worrisome behavior.
"Write down the numbers for all medical professionals treating your friend or family member, contact information for other friends who can help, and the number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK (8255)," Dr. Fan recommends. "It can also help to list the location of the closest emergency room, medications, any relevant diagnosis or health history, and prior suicide attempts." Caregivers can find assistance through the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at (800) 950-NAMI (6264).
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.