Many of life’s unexpected tragedies cause deep emotional and psychological pain. While many often raise seemingly unanswerable questions, virtually none create the wounds, doubts, and self-blame that suicide does. People die. We know that and in a way, we accept it. The death of a friend or loved one through an outside agency can eventually be accepted as the natural order of things; whether by illness or an accident, no matter how tragic or unfair.
But suicide is something different altogether. There, capricious Fate, random chance, mutated cells, or mindless microbes cannot be blamed, for the deceased died at his or her own hand. And so, along with the shock, grief, and immeasurable pain of loss comes the biggest question; Why? Why would anyone willingly cause his or her own death? What would drive him or her to such a course of action?
Mental health professionals have been searching for years for an answer to that question and generally agree that people who took their own lives felt trapped by what they saw as a hopeless situation. Whatever the reality, whatever the emotional support provided, they felt isolated and cut off from friendships, life, etc. Even if no physical illness was present, suicide victims felt intense pain, anguish, and hopelessness. John Newer, author of After Suicide, says, “He or she probably wasn’t choosing death as much as choosing to end this unbearable pain.”
Despite these vague understandings, sometimes there are no apparent causes. No matter how long and hard we search for a reason, there is no answer to “why.” Each suicide is individual, regardless of the generalizations about the “whys”, and there may be no way anyone will completely understand the suicide victim’s thought process that lead to the act.
Quickly following this largely unanswerable query comes the nagging question among those who knew the victim: Should we have seen it coming; is there something we could have done?
Unfortunately, the answer to these questions is both yes and no.
Yes, there are often signs that someone may be vulnerable to suicide. One recent study found that 87% of persons committing suicide were diagnosable with a mental disorder based on history from their friends and family following their death. In fact, suicide is viewed by many as the most serious consequence of mental health problems, most often, depression. While addictive behaviors such as drug or alcohol abuse or problem gambling have been associated with suicide, among mental health problems depression is the most serious warning sign of a possible suicide.
The signs and symptoms of depression are often observed by those around someone suffering from depression. They include actions an individual may take, the feelings they’re having and the words they use. Any of the following are warning signs and reasons to take notice.
- Changes in mood such as becoming irritable, angry or withdrawn
- Extreme and sudden changes in behavior
- Missing work, leaving early, changes in work performance or classroom performance
- Not wanting to spend time with friends
- Loss of interest in once enjoyable activities such as sports and leisure activities
- Drug and alcohol use and abuse
- Excessive sleeping or insomnia
- Changes or loss of interest in sex
- Changes in eating habits
- Taking unusual and potentially life-threatening chances or risks
- Fixation with death and thoughts of suicide
- Expressions and statements of “worthlessness, helplessness and hopelessness”
From these perspectives; from outward signs that someone may be extremely troubled, there certainly are things that outsiders can do. Beyond being curious, asking questions and offering support and encouragement, they can suggest places a person can go, or people they can talk to, for emotional and psychological help. Learning more about these symptoms online or even taking formal classes on identifying signs of suicide, and how to intervene, can most certainly help.
But the “no” portion of the answer is that these signs do not automatically mean a person is going to attempt suicide, or is even considering it. Conversely, suicides can happen without any warning signs and, even when there are signs, the best-intentioned interventions may not always be accepted. The choice to let other know about their thoughts, to accept assistance, and to seek alternates, is always up to the person with thoughts of suicide. If someone is committed to the act of suicide, they will usually find a way.
Recognizing the signs that someone may be thinking about suicide, also called “invitations,” is something that many of us know instinctively. We just have “a feeling” that something is not quite right. We may see worrisome changes after the loss of a loved one, or a job, or during financial stress. We may see the signs during life changes – retirement or children going off to college, or we know that someone is at risk because of drugs, alcohol, bullying or because of a prior or existing mental health issue.
The hardest part for anyone who may witness these struggles is not recognizing the signs, but rather, not being afraid to ask the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?” That question, and not ignoring or running away from the answer, “yes,” can sometimes save a live.
For most people, even those who may think about suicide, the act will never happen. And most individuals who are thinking about suicide do provide some sign; some invitation, that tells others they’re struggling and need help. Still, it’s important to remember that the only person who can absolutely protect someone from suicide is the person thinking about suicide. The only person responsible for an act of suicide is the individual who commits suicide.
For those with a desire to know more, to help or to get involved, there are many public resources available to learn more about these signs, and about some methods to intervene.
- Crisis Chat
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline 1-800-273-TALK 
- Albany County Mobile Crisis (518) 549-6500
Safe Tell, Ask, Listen and KeepSafe (SafeTALK) is a two-and-a-half to three-hour training that prepares anyone over the age of 15 to identify persons with thoughts of suicide and connect them to suicide first aid resources.
- ASIST-Applied Suicide Intervention Skills
Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a two-day intensive, interactive and practice-dominated course designed to help clinical, non-clinical caregivers and parents recognize and review risk, and intervene to prevent the immediate risk of suicide.