A person who is thinking about suicide will usually give some clues or signs to those around them that indicate they are distressed. These are often referred to as suicide warning signs.
Suicide prevention starts with recognising these suicide warning signs and taking them seriously.
The following is a list of signs that people might give when they are feeling anguished and overwhelmed, in order to communicate their distress to others. These physical changes and behaviours are indicators that a person might be thinking about suicide. Some of these signs are stronger indicators that a person may be thinking about suicide than other – these have been highlighted. It is most likely that a suicidal person will display a combination of these signs rather than one single sign.
Observable suicide warning signs
- Loss of physical energy
- Loss of interest in personal hygiene or appearance
- Major changes to sleeping patterns, too much or too little
- Loss of interest in sex
- Sudden and extreme changes in eating habits, either loss of appetite or increase in appetite
- Weight gain or loss
- Increase in minor illnesses
- Unexplained crying
- Emotional outbursts
- Alcohol or drug misuse
- Uncharacteristic risk-taking or recklessness (for example, driving recklessly)
- Fighting and/or breaking the law
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Quitting activities that were previously important
- Prior suicidal behaviour
- Putting affairs in order e.g. giving away possessions, especially those that have special significance for the person
- Writing a suicide note or goodbye letters to people
- Escape: “I can’t take this anymore.”
- No future: “What’s the point? Things are never going to get any better.”
- Guilt: “It’s all my fault, I’m to blame”
- Alone: “I’m on my own, no-one cares about me.”
- Damaged: “I’ve been irreparably damaged”, “I’ll never be the same again.”
- Helpless: “Nothing I do makes a bit of difference”, “It’s beyond my control.”
- Talking about suicide or death
- Planning for suicide
Responding to suicide warning signs
Speak up if you are worried
Talking to a friend or family member about their suicidal thoughts and feelings can be extremely difficult. But if you’re unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask.
Sometimes people are worried that they might ‘put the idea of suicide into the person’s head’ if they ask about suicide.
You can’t make a person suicidal by showing that you care.
In fact, giving a suicidal person the opportunity to express his or her feelings can provide relief from loneliness and pent-up negative feelings, and may prevent a suicide attempt.
Ways to start a conversation about suicide
- I have been concerned about you lately
- I wanted to check in with you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately
Questions you can ask the person
- How can I best support you right now?
- How long have you been feeling this way?
What you can say that helps
- You are not alone in this. I’m here for you
- I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help
For more tips on talking to someone about suicide, see How can I talk to somebody about suicide?
Assess the risk of suicide
If a friend or family member tells you that he or she is thinking about suicide, it is important to evaluate the risk.
Those at the highest risk will have the INTENTION to end their life; a specific PLAN, the MEANS and a TIME-FRAME.
The following questions can help you assess the person’s risk:
- Do you intend to take your life? (INTENTION)
- Do you have a plan to take your life? (PLAN)
- Do you have access to the means to carry the plan out? (pills, gun, etc) (MEANS)
- Do you have a time-frame for taking your life? (TIME-FRAME)
If the person is at high risk of suicide, seek immediate help by calling 000 (police, ambulance), or, with their permission take the person to hospital.
Know where to go for support
Find out what services are available.
This should include local emergency services, community health services and hospitals.
Keep a list of contact details and times when the services are available.