I’m always a little hesitant to write an article like this in close proximity to someone dying by suicide because there is a tendency for their loved ones to read the signs and symptoms of suicide through the lens of their mourning and grief and believe they should have known.
So, let me say that it is difficult to recognize these signs even for people trained to see them. No one wants to believe that their loved ones are capable of suicide. Although, when you read the signs, your mind may see them clearly in the history of your loved one, please remember that hindsight is always 20/20. It would be impossible to see them before you knew what they were.
The CDC estimates that 9.3 million adults in the U.S. reported having suicidal thoughts in 2015. In 2020, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for ages 10–34, and the fourth leading cause of death for ages 35–54. Even biblical giants, like Job (7:15–16), Jonah (4:3), and Elijah (19:3–14) could have been said to have had thoughts of suicide on at least one occasion each…and God included these parts of their histories in His written testimony to us.
There are several mental health conditions that can lead someone to consider suicide. Depression is the most obvious and when someone’s symptoms of depression include a sense of hopelessness (i.e. the feeling that “this will never get better”) or helplessness (i.e. the feeling that “there’s nothing I can do to make this better”), suicidal thoughts become more likely. Other mental health conditions, such as severe anxiety and bipolar disorder, can also lead someone to have suicidal thoughts.
There are certain signs that tend to be common for people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts and possibly considering suicidal plans, as well. These are some of those signs:
- Talking about suicide or dying — sometimes this may be as simple as saying, “I wish I’d never been born,” or “you’d all be better off without me.” Any talk of this kind should be taken seriously and seen as a cry for help, even if it’s said in a joking tone.
- Decreased capacity to cope with everyday life stresses that they were previously able to manage.
- The desire to run away.
- Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or feelings of being trapped with no way out of a certain stressor.
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, shame, or self-hatred.
- Feeling like a burden to others.
- Giving away prized possessions.
- Making arrangements for family members to be taken care of if they are gone.
- Withdrawing from friends or family and increasing social isolation. Sometimes this shows up in a strong desire to be left alone.
- Or a sudden calm after a period of emotional turmoil with no definable explanation (i.e. I went to get some help and it’s working). This can mean that the person feels a sense of resolve because they’ve decided to die by suicide.
These symptoms show either an increase in emotional pain or a decrease in connection to life and relationships. Either of these conditions can make a suicide attempt more likely and any one or more of these symptoms should be taken seriously.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts don’t be afraid or embarrassed to talk about it openly. It is a common issue, a lot more common than you may believe. If people are honest, many will tell you that at one point or another they have had suicidal thoughts, this writer included.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts please know that this is not evidence of a lack of faith; it is a mental health condition that deserves proper treatment by a trained professional. Choose not to suffer alone. Openness and the proper help, which often requires a combination of medication and mental health help can do a world of good over time. There are several options for effective help.
If you have a loved one who is experiencing suicidal thoughts and/or the other signs above, don’t be afraid to ask questions about suicidal thoughts while maintaining the 5 C’s (Curiosity, Compassion, Calm, Connectedness, and Courage). You may simply ask a question like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been in a lot of pain lately and I’m wondering if you’ve had thoughts of suicide?” Listening to the answer, without arguing (you can’t simply convince someone they shouldn’t be suicidal) can be very helpful. The goal isn’t to make the problem go away quickly (because that’s not often possible) — the goal is to help the person feel less alone.
It is a myth that talking about suicide with someone will make them attempt suicide. Often the opposite is true. People often find it to be a relief when they are able to open up with someone about how they feel.
If you or your loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, such as suicidal thoughts, getting the help of a competent mental health and medical professional quickly is very important. Sometimes this may involve simply making an appointment with a mental health and medical professional, and sometimes it may involve bringing them to the hospital emergency room for an evaluation.
When in doubt, reaching out to your local crisis hotline (which is available 24/7) can be helpful in quickly deciding next steps for yourself or your loved one experiencing suicidal thoughts. If you aren’t aware of your local hotline number, the national suicide prevention line is another great resource (800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org) and it’s also open 24/7.
In short, keep these important things in mind — if you have a loved one who may be suicidal consider the following “dos” and “don’ts:”
- Argue with a suicidal person about the value of life…instead let them know how much you value them/love them.
- Lecture them about suicide (i.e. It’s wrong, so much to live for)…instead, listen to their pain with curiosity and help them seek mental health and medical options for help.
- Offer easy answers to their complex issue…instead offer support, a listening ear, and help them feel less alone.
- Let them be alone in a suicidal crisis.
- Take every disclosure of suicidal thoughts seriously. It’s a myth that when people talk about suicide it means they aren’t serious about following through. People often announce suicidal thoughts before making an attempt.
- Ask about suicidal thoughts and simply listen to the pain someone is experiencing…it’s a myth that simply talking about suicide makes someone attempt suicide. It’s feeling alone in their pain with no hope that makes someone attempt suicide. It usually brings a sense of relief to be able to share the suicidal feelings someone is experiencing with someone who will really help them feel heard. You may simply ask a question like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been in a lot of pain lately and I’m wondering if you’ve had thoughts of suicide?” When listening to the story of someone who is suicidal, remember the 5 C’s: Curiosity, Compassion, Calm, Connectedness, and Courage.
- Lock away anything the person could use to hurt themselves, such as sharps, pills, etc.
- Reach out for competent mental health and medical help as quickly as possible. When in doubt, reaching out to your local crisis hotline (which is available 24/7) can be helpful in quickly deciding next steps for yourself or your loved one who is experiencing suicidal thoughts. The national suicide prevention line is another great resource (800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org) and it’s also open 24/7.
Dr. Steve Dunleavey
Director of Clinical Services
Dr. Steve Dunleavey comes to Emerge Counseling with 15 years of experience in Christian counseling and six years in pastoral ministry. He has served as an independently licensed counseling supervisor, the Director of Education, and in 2016 was promoted to the position of Director of Clinical Services. However, his most cherished roles in life are that of husband to Kristen, and father to his twins, Cooper and Finley.
Steve is passionate about relational leadership and integrating Biblical and theological truth with sound psychological principles to help people truly heal and experience the abundant life and freedom that Jesus promised. It is this passion that guides his leadership of the clinical team at Emerge Counseling.
Steve has a DMin in Biblical Counseling, an MA in Clinical Pastoral Counseling, which led to LPCC licensure in Ohio, and a BA in Biblical Studies and Pastoral Ministries. He leads marriage retreats and seminars on various topics, is on the Executive Leadership Team, and is a Counselor Training Supervisor at Emerge Counseling. He has also been an Adjunct Professor at Ashland Theological Seminary in their Practical Theology and Mental Health Counseling departments for the past 15 years.