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What if Someone You Care About it Suicidal?
by Jennifer Orleans, PhD

It's a nightmare; you've got a friend who's really down, and you've been worried about him or her for a while. Now you've discovered that your friend is suicidal. It's understandable if you're terrified; this is a serious situation, and you want to handle it the right way. What should you do?

First, some facts. If you know something about the statistics and risk factors for suicide, you're in a better position to evaluate what's going on and to help your friend.

The Facts about Suicide

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death for people between 15-24 years old. In 1996, more teenagers and young adults died from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia and influenza, and chronic lung disease combined.

  • Over the last several decades, the suicide rate in young people has increased dramatically. From 1952-1996, the incidence of suicide among adolescents and young adults nearly tripled.

  • Suicide using firearms is the most common method for both men and women, accounting for roughly 58 percent of all suicides.

  • The risk for suicide among young people is greatest among young white men; however, from 1980-1996 suicide rates increased most rapidly among young black men.

  • Men are much more likely to commit suicide than women (the 1996 gender ratio for ages 15-19 was 5:1; for ages 20-24 it was 7:1).

  • More women than men attempt suicide (gender ratio of 2:1).

Risk Factors

Please note that many people have one or more risk factors and are not suicidal; for instance, just because your friend is an impulsive person who's had a few rough times lately certainly doesn't mean that he'll try to kill himself.
  • The strongest risk factors for attempted suicide are depression, alcohol or other drug abuse, separation from romantic partner, and aggressive or disruptive behavior.

  • Other risk factors include:

    • Prior suicide attempt

    • Impulsivity

    • Easily access to firearms

    • Past problems

    • Family violence, including physical or sexual abuse

    • Exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, including family, peers, in the news, or in fiction

    • Family history of mental or substance abuse disorder

    • Family history of suicide

    • One or more diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorders

    • Time in prison

  • It has been widely reported that gay and lesbian youth are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youth, and that 30 percent of all attempted or completed youth suicides are related to issues of sexual identity. (At this time, there are no objective data to support this, but there is growing concern about an association between suicide risk and homosexuality or bisexuality for youth, particularly men.)

Warning Signs

There is no "typical" suicide victim, but there are some common warning signs to look for. A person might be suicidal if she or he:
  • Talks about committing suicide; it's not true that if a person talks about suicide, she won't do it. It's extremely important to take these remarks seriously.

  • Has trouble eating or sleeping

  • Experiences drastic changes in behavior

  • Withdraws from friends and social activities

  • Loses interest in hobbies, school, work, etc...

  • Prepares for death by making out a will and final arrangements

  • Gives away prized possessions

  • Has attempted suicide before

  • Takes unnecessary, extreme risks

  • Has experienced recent, severe losses

  • Is preoccupied with death and dying

  • Loses interest in her personal appearance

  • Increases her use of alcohol or drugs

Some of the feelings and things a suicidal person might be experiencing:
  • Can't stop the pain

  • Can't think clearly

  • Can't make decisions

  • Can't see any way out

  • Can't sleep, eat, or study

  • Can't get out of depression

  • Can't make the sadness go away

  • Can't see a future without pain

  • Can't see themselves as worthwhile

  • Can't get someone's attention

  • Can't seem to get control

How to Help

Here are some ways to be helpful to someone who is suicidal:
  • Be direct. Talk openly and matter-of-factly about suicide.

  • Be willing to listen. Allow expressions of feelings. Accept the feelings.

  • Be non-judgmental. Don't debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether your friend's feelings are good or bad. Don't lecture on the value of life.

  • Don't act shocked. This will put distance between you and your friend.

  • Don't dare him to do it; because he might.

  • Show interest and support.

  • Remove the means, such as guns or stockpiled pills.

  • Don't be sworn to secrecy. You don't have to, and shouldn't, handle this alone. Seek help. Get consultation about what to do from the campus counseling center or people or agencies that specialize in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.

  • Offer hope that alternatives are available. Remind your friend that there are effective treatments for depression, and that many people can very quickly begin to experience relief from depressive symptoms. But don't offer glib reassurance.

  • Help your friend get a mental health evaluation and treatment. A person in crisis may not be aware that they are in need of help or be able to seek it on his own.

  • Get help from:

    • Your campus counseling center

    • A community mental health agency

    • A private psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist

    • A physician

    • A suicide prevention or crisis center

There are definitely things you can do to help, as noted above. But as hard as it can be to truly accept, remember that you aren't responsible for the decisions your friend makes. Ultimately, you can't (and shouldn't) be in charge of someone else's life.

American Association of Suicidology. "Understanding and Helping the Suicidal Person." Accessed August 22, 2000.

National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.). "Suicide Facts [Statistics]" Accessed August 22, 2000.

National Institute of Mental Health (U.S.). "Suicide Facts" Accessed August 22, 2000.

The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Prevent Suicide, 1999 (U.S.). "At a Glance: Suicide Among the Young." Accessed August 22, 2000.

Article courtesy of
"Where Health and Reality Meet."

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