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Suicide Prevention: Warning Signs & Risk Factors

Effective suicide prevention requires that everyone close to the person is aware of the risk factors for suicide and know how to respond.

Most suicides and suicide attempts are reactions to intense feelings of:

Loneliness – is an emotional state in which a person experiences powerful feelings of emptiness and isolation.  Loneliness is more than just the feeling of wanting company or wanting to do something with another person.  Loneliness is a feeling of being cut-off, disconnected from the world, and alienated from other people.

Worthlessness - is an emotional state in which a person feels low, and they lack any feelings of being valued by others.

Hopelessness – is a spiritual/relational issue.  It often stems from feeling disconnected from a higher power or other people.  Connection with a higher power and other people is a key to helping individuals to withstand grief and loss.  This connection allows individuals to rebound from most severe disappointments of life.

Helplessness - is a condition or event where the person thinks that they have no control over their situation and whatever they do is futile such as repeated failures, or rejection from someone they love.

Guilt - is a primary emotion experienced by people who believe that they have done something wrong. 

Warning Signs:

When someone presents with any combination of the following, those around this person should become more vigilant.  It is advised that help should be secured for the individual.

  • Talk of suicide or killing someone else
  • Giving away property or disregard for what happens to one’s property
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Problems with girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse
  • Acting bizarre or unusual (based on your knowledge of the person)
  • In trouble at work or with the law
  • Experiencing financial problems
  • Loss of job
  • Loss of family (divorce, death, etc.)

When someone presents with any one of these concerns, the person should be seen immediately by a licensed mental health professional:

  • Talking or hinting about suicide
  • Formulating a plan to include acquiring the means to kill oneself
  • Having a desire to die
  • Obsession with death (music, poetry, artwork)
  • Themes of death in letters and notes
  • Finalizing personal affairs
  • Giving away personal possessions

Risk Factors: are those things that increase the probability that difficulties could result in serious adverse behavioral or physical health.  The risk factors only raise the risk of an individual being suicidal, it does not mean that they are suicidal.

The risk factors often associated with suicidal behavior include:

  • Relationship problems (loss of girlfriend/boyfriend, divorce, etc.)
  • History of previous suicide attempts
  • Substance Abuse
  • History of depression or other mental illness
  • Family history of suicide or violence
  • Work related problems
  • Transitions (retirements, etc.)
  • A serious medical problem
  • Significant loss (death of a loved one, loss due to natural disasters, etc.)
  • Current/pending disciplinary or legal action
  • Setbacks (academic, career or personal)
  • Severe, prolonged, and/or perceived unmanageable stress
  • A sense of powerlessness, helplessness, and/or hopelessness

Suicidal Risk Highest When:

  • The person sees no way out and fears things may get worse
  • The predominent emotions are hopelessness and helplessness
  • Judgment is impaired by use of alcohol or other substances
  • Thinking is constricted with a tendency to perceive his or her situation as all bad

More on this topic:

Someone You Know is Thinking About Suicide


Adapted from Suicide Prevention Training Tip Card – (TA-074-0507) U.S. Army