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Warning signs of suicide and how to help

If you or a loved one has thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

How much do you know about suicide risk factors, misconceptions and prevention? By educating yourself, you may be able to help save a life. 

Suicide risk factors

Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions about suicide is that it is always linked to mental illness.

“Sometimes a person with thoughts of suicide has no history of mental illness, like depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia,” says Patrick Coleman, M.D. “Desperation, grief and burnout can all lead to suicidal thoughts without signs of mental illness.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 50 percent of suicides occur in people with no known mental illness. While mental illness could have played a role in these cases, as many mental illnesses go undiagnosed, stressful life circumstances can also lead people to attempt suicide. These include:

  • Abuse

  • Chronic pain

  • Financial problems

  • Health issues

  • Relationship breakups

  • Substance abuse

  • Trauma

A person may also be at higher risk for suicidal thoughts if he or she has:

  • A family history of suicide

  • Attempted suicide in the past

  • Known someone who has died by suicide

Warning signs that someone may be suicidal

The following are warning signs that someone could be suicidal:

  • Alcohol or drug abuse

  • Avoiding others

  • Creating a will or putting their affairs in order

  • Extreme mood swings or rage

  • Giving prized possessions to loved ones

  • Researching online how to harm themselves or buying lethal means, like pills or a firearm

  • Risky or reckless behavior, like driving at a high speed

  • Sharing that they feel hopeless or like a burden to others, that they are in significant pain, or that they want to get revenge

  • Sleeping too much or too little

  • Talking about wanting to die or harm themselves

  • Telling friends and family “goodbye”

Suicide prevention

Suicide is not always planned; sometimes it is attempted impulsively. If someone you know exhibits the warning signs mentioned above, here is how you can help:

  • Ask them directly if they are considering suicide. Listen to and acknowledge their feelings. Research has shown this doesn’t increase suicidal thoughts in at-risk people. Once you know they are suicidal, you can help them get the support they need.

  • Ask them if they have a plan to harm themselves. If possible, remove any means they have, such as a weapon or medications. If you don’t have access to their home, talk to a family member or friend who can help them.

  • Encourage them to seek immediate help. Help them call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If you can, help them connect with a mental health professional, family member, friend or spiritual advisor. 

  • Follow up with them. Studies have shown suicide deaths decrease when a loved one consistently checks in with the at-risk person.

What to do if you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide

If you or a loved one has thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741. These services are free, confidential and offer 24/7 counseling.

You can also seek support from your primary care physician. 

“It is common for primary care providers to ask patients during routine checkups if they have felt down, hopeless or depressed,” says Dr. Coleman. “If we identify that a patient has thoughts of suicide, we will carefully evaluate their needs. We will get a thorough history of their thoughts, plans, social obstacles or recent events, such as the death of a family member, divorce, loss of employment or financial distress.”

He adds, “Once we know more about a patient’s unique circumstance, the next steps would be getting them in touch with the right care at the right time. This may include evaluation by a psychiatric team or psychologist, or connecting them with resources like a social worker, employee assistance, or substance abuse treatment. Some patients benefit from medication as well.”

If you are in crisis, it is important to tell someone if you have thoughts of harming yourself. The right resources can get you on the path to healing.


National Institute of Mental Health

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Dr. Coleman practices at Piedmont Physicians Atlantic Station, located at 232 19th Street Northwest, Suite 7220, Atlanta, GA 30363. Schedule an appointment with Dr. Coleman or one of our other primary care providers. Save time, book online.

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