When I was 15 years old, I was privileged to be friends with one of the most creative and outgoing girls I knew. But, I noticed she gradually started to withdraw from school events and group hangouts. As I got more concerned about her, I asked if she wanted to take a walk and hang out in Central Park, NYC. She shared that her aunt passed away recently and was too ashamed to tell anyone – as if death meant weakness. She felt increasingly sad and hopeless in her own future whilst also dreaded the disconnectedness in her family after the death. “Sometimes I wish I could just go away, no one cares anyway”, she said.
She was thinking about committing suicide, and for people ages 15 to 34, she is not alone. It is the second leading cause of death. Suicide is serious and causes immeasurable pain, suffering, and loss to individuals, families, and communities nationwide. It does not discriminate, can affect all ages, backgrounds, and racial and ethnic groups. That being said, some populations are statistically at higher risk for suicidal behavior: American Indians and Alaska Natives, people bereaved by suicide, people in justice and child welfare settings, people who intentionally hurt themselves, self-harm, previously attempted suicide, those with medical conditions, mental and/or substance use disorders, people who identify as LGBTQIAA, members of the military and veterans, men in midlife and older men.
So how do we recognize suicide, working to heal pain for others and prevent pain in the lives of others close to those suffering? Below I’ve listed warning signs to look for, what you can do when you notice the signs and protective factors that foster hope.
Warning Signs: These may mean someone is at risk of suicide but are not limited to these alone a Mnemonic for this would be: IS PATH WARM.
- Ideation – Does the person have thoughts about dying and killing self? Have they written a note about their death? Are they talking about wanting to go away forever?
- Substance (or alcohol) abuse – Does the person excessively use alcohol or other drugs? Have they begun to use drugs?
- Purposelessness – Do they voice a lack or loss of purpose in life? Do they see little to no reason for continuing their life?
- Anxiety – Do they have an inability to relax? Feeling irritated and unable to sleep? Just as important, are they sleeping all the time? Either can suggest an increased risk of suicide or self-harm.
- Trapped – Does the person believe there is no way out of their current situation? Do they believe death is preferable to a pained life? That there are no other choices except living the pained life or death?
- Hopelessness – Do they have a negative sense of self, others, and their future? Does the future appear hopeless with little chance for positive change?
- Withdrawal – Have you seen the person less and less? Does the person have or state a desire to withdraw or leave from significant others, family, friends, and society?
- Anger – Are they expressing feelings of rage or uncontrolled anger? Seeking revenge against others whom they believe are at fault or have wronged them?
- Recklessness – Does the person engage in riskier behaviors without thinking or considering the potential consequences of what could happen?
- Mood (extreme changes/swings) – Does that person have or say that they are experiencing dramatic shifts in their mood? Do they feel one way and then quickly feel another?
What Can You Do? : these are just some suggestions but can also vary depending on the person
- Directly ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. Yes, it’s okay to do that. It will not put the idea into their head or make it more likely to happen. In fact, asking about it shows you care and gives them the opportunity to be honest about what they’re really feeling and relieves the stress of feeling unknown or isolated.
- Listen without judging and show you care. Say you believe them and are concerned.
- Stay with the person (or ensure that they are in a private, secure place with another caring person) until you can get additional help.
- Remove any objects that could be used in a suicidal attempt.
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and follow their guidance.
- If danger for self-harm is imminent, call 911.
Protective Factors & Fostering Hope
If you’re reading this, know that it is not hopeless. The experience of life is difficult and in the face of struggle, it is important and meaningful to lean into some of these protective factors, growing and fostering hope. If you or someone you love is currently contemplating suicide, here are direct actions you can do to increase a sense of hope and meaning. Some protective factors are:
- Effective clinical care from a helping professional such as a mental health therapist. Being under someone’s care give you easy access to a variety of interventions and support.
- Family and community support. Social supports increase the feeling of connectedness. Support from ongoing medical and mental health care relationships, which may include medical management of depression depending on symptoms.
- Increasing skills in problem-solving and coping. This increases a person’s ability to adapt and change when life is difficult.
- Having or discovering a sense of purpose or meaning in life. This can come from a worldview, religious beliefs, etc.
- Cultivating cultural, religious or personal beliefs that discourage suicide. Although it takes time and energy to figure out, knowing the why behind what you believe is important to overall health.
“Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul,
and sings in the tune-without the words
and never stops at all…” ~Emily Dickinson
Hope can be powerful to the body, mind, and soul. There are many ways to foster hope when it comes to searching for meaning and purpose. When I realized, as a 15-year-old, that my friend was going through something quite serious and deep, I was all the more motivated to be her hope-bearer, lending her enough hope until she could experience and carry hope herself. I was simply there for her; showing up and being present can make a huge difference.
You may be feeling the overwhelming pressure of supporting someone who is contemplating self-harm, but it doesn’t have to be. My friend and I spent most nights watching romantic comedies, procrastinating on our homework, and ordering way too much Domino’s pizza. Through really simple acts of being together, our connection and relationship helped her to see that she doesn’t have to be alone. That together, we can search for meaning and grow in hope.
My personal experience has driven me to help people who are struggling with being on the brink of life. Hopefully, this resource offers you a sense of strength to cope with a difficult subject. If you or someone you know struggles with not having a will to live, please don’t hesitate to reach out to myself or another helping professional. Life is precious, and we can all be moving to support each other.