How Can I Tell if Someone is Suicidal?

by Andrea M. Darcy
Reviewed by Dr Sheri Jacobson

Has a colleague, acquaintance, friend or fellow student been acting strangely lately? And you are concerned? Or worried they might commit suicide?

Is he or she suicidal?

Do not overlook their words. People who are feeling very suicidal often say so, even if it’s couched in a joke, or only something they posted on social media.

Look for phrases that speak of destruction and hopelessness, such as:

  • life is pointless
  • I hate myself
  • I don’t know why I bother trying anymore
  • everyone would be better off without me
  • would anyone even notice if I was gone?

They are definitely depressed, should I worry they are in danger?

Not all people who are depressed or not doing well have suicidal thoughts. But if we waited to reach out to someone until we were sure someone was going to kill themselves then we might already be too late.

So it’s best to look out for signs a person is struggling and then do your best to help.

Signs a person is not okay

Signs a person is struggling or might be suicidal all depend on how that person is usually. For example, saying ‘not wanting to talk’ is a sign someone is doing poorly doesn’t apply to someone who is never chatty to begin with.

The most important thing to notice is if a person is markedly different than usual, and it’s not just a bad day but has gone on for a few weeks or more.

Things to look out for include:

1. Changes in social behaviour.

A chatty person could be withdrawn, a quieter person forcefully talkative and cheerful. And someone who likes to go out could start staying home, whereas someone who goes out infrequently could be out getting drunk every evening.

2. Overusing addictive substances.

Speaking of drinking. Note if the person is now drinking more, or using drugs when they don't usually. Food and sugar can be used addictively as well, if you notice the person has started bingeing.

3. Not keeping up their usual self-care regime.

Has a usually well-kept colleague started to look dishevelled? Or stopped caring about fitness and health when usually they are obsessed? These can be signs someone is spiralling.

4. Lack of interest in usual hobbies.

Have they stopped talking about their interests? Or going to the course or class they usually love? This is a sign of depression.

5. Emotional volatility.

Is he or she snapping more than usual, no longer able to take a joke, sensitive to casual comments when they weren't before?

6. Changes in coping.

Are they not keeping up with a workload they used to handle, forgetting things, late for things when they usually aren't?

But nothing has happened to upset them

Do not assume a person is fine because ‘nothing big has happened to them lately’.

Yes, in many cases there seems to be a trigger for severe depression that leaves a person wanting to die. This could be a breakup, divorce, job loss, debt issue, bereavement, illness, or trauma. So we need to keep an eye on friends and colleagues going through such things.

But sucidal thoughts rarely happen only because of one big life change, but more because the person in question has low resilience and feels oversaturated by a series of things, which may or may not be obvious.

It can also be that he or she has suffered depression for a long time, and something with significance to them personally has felt the last straw.

This low resilience is often related to a childhood where we have adverse experiences, went through trauma, or didn'’t receive enough security and love. We end up an adult who can struggle to cope mentally and emotionally, even if on the outside our life seems fine.

How do I approach a person who might be suicidal?

1. Don't just ask 'how are you'.

This question is overused in our society, and tends to lead nowhere but a quick ‘fine’.

A better question is, ‘are you okay’? It makes it clear you are concerned. Which leads to the next step.

2. Make it clear you are concerned and open a door.

A door of communication, that is. Even if the person claims they are fine, do your best to make it clear you are concerned and are available to talk when they are ready. “I feel you are not yourself and am worried. I just want to let you know that if you’d like to talk I am happy to listen."

3. If they do want to talk, follow good protocol.

A person who is considering suicide is vulnerable and sensitive. There are actually many things you can say and do that can make things worse over better, such as offering platitudes or not respecting their privacy. Read our article on how to help someone who is considering suicide, and please do follow its advice carefully.

4. If you find it too overwhelming, be honest.

What if you are overwhelmed by their behaviour, or don’t feel up to listening or helping? Be honest and offer to help them find other assistance. “I am not very good at listening to be honest, I always tend to say the wrong thing. But I do care, and if you wanted me to help you find someone to talk to I could do that”. You could then link them to helplines like the Good Samaritans on 116 123, or have a list of places to easily book therapy to hand.

5. If they really are going to hurt themselves or someone else, call for help.

If the person makes it clear they have a plan for suicide -- they know how they will kill themselves, they know the time and place they will do so, and have bought things for it, for example? Then get them to A&E or call emergency services.

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