How to Help Spot the Signs of Suicide

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By David Britchkow, MD, Chief Medical Officer, UnitedHealthcare of NJ and PA

Note: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call or text the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. It’s free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day.

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a month dedicated to recognizing those struggling with untreated mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts, and reducing the stigma associated with both. 

According to the most recent statistics, suicide is on the rise nationally, being the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds and 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States. In 2020 alone, there were 45,979 deaths by suicide, which is about one death every 11 minutes.

The stigma around mental health still exists even with the increased focus. The fear of judgment or discrimination may prevent people suffering with a behavioral health issue from seeking the treatment they need. Without help or treatment, the feelings of hopelessness and loneliness may build, leading one to consider thoughts of ending their own life. Also, feelings of stress, anxiety, depression and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic may have exacerbated these outcomes and put further strain on people’s mental health.

For those with behavioral health disorders, like depression and bipolar disorder, there may be an increased risk of suicide, with research indicating the rate of suicide for those who have bipolar disorder is 10 to 30 times more than the overall population.

Recent research shows that almost eight out of 10 people struggling offer signs that they are considering suicide. Regardless of whether you know someone who’s currently struggling with mental health, it may be helpful to learn how to help spot some of the signs of suicide, reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, and understand how to intervene and find clinical treatment.

The following warning signs might mean a person is considering suicide and may need urgent help:

·       Discussions about being a burden

·       Being isolated

·       Increased anxiety

·       Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

·       Increased substance use

·       Looking for a way to access lethal means

·       Increased anger or rage

·       Extreme mood swings

·       Expressing hopelessness

·       Sleeping too little or too much

·       Talking or posting about wanting to die

·       Making plans for suicide

Research shows that even talking candidly with or just being there for a person who’s in a dark mental state may help reduce suicidal thoughts. If a support system or person steps in early on, it may ultimately help save a life.

“Ask how they’re doing,” advised NY Jets’ Solomon Thomas in a recent Suicide Prevention town hall when discussing the loss of his sister to suicide. “I think it’s important and powerful to tell someone how bad you want them here and how bad you need them here.” He added, “Just listen to them…and make sure they feel heard.”

To that end, consider these tips on how you can start a conversation:

·       Show that you’re concerned about recent changes you’ve noticed in their mood or behavior in a way that is not confrontational or judgmental. 

·       Keep questions simple andask how they are, what they’re feeling and how you can help provide support.

·       Suggest reaching out to a local recovery support resource or a professional trained to help with these types of issues. A growing number of mental health care providers offer virtual visits that can help make it easier for people to access mental health care when they need it. Many employee assistance programs also offer mental health support.

·       After your initial conversation, remain engaged with them and check in regularly. Having consistent support from family and friends may help make a huge difference in people’s well-being.

·       Take action if the individual is not receptive to your help, is threatening to hurt themselves, searching for ways to take their life or consistently talking, writing or posting about death and suicide in a way that seems out of character, you should take action and call 9-1-1. It can be the difference between life and death.

By taking these steps to be there for someone who is struggling, you may be able to play a part in helping to save their life.

For more information and resources, visit uhc.com.