In order to prevent suicide, we have to have an idea of things to look for that might suggest someone is at some level of increased risk to attempt suicide.
If we know what to look for, and what to ask about, then we are likely to be much better able to identify people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide.
“Suicidal ideation” means thinking about suicide. That is, people struggling with suicidal ideation are having ideas related to their own suicide. The may not ever talk about them and they may never take an action but they have thought about it. We’ll cover the thorny problem of the unobservable nature of suicidal ideation in module 3 of this course.
If you are trying to determine whether one of the members of your church is at risk for suicide, there are three big classes of factors to take into account: Risk Factors, Triggering Events, and Warning Signs.
Risk factors are things about a person that increase risk for suicide. They do not signal an immediate risk in and of themselves but when they are present in an individual, the person is more likely to have suicidal thoughts. Moreover, they heighten the likelihood that someone actually will attempt to end his or her own life. Risk factors can include depression, alcohol and substance misuse and abuse, or impulsivity. When such risk factors are present, it is also an indication that people should be approached for the specific purpose of finding out whether they might be having thoughts of suicide and followed more closely.
Triggering events are life events that can act tipping points in someone’s emotional well-being. They are things that happen to people that are perceived as emotionally traumatic by the people to which they happen. Triggering events, in the absence of any warning signs or risk factors, do not indicate any risk in and of themselves. That is, someone may lose their job, experience a death, or something else and yet not be at increased risk. However, traumatic events may sometimes initiate or exacerbate suicidal thoughts and suicide risk.
Warning signs are observable behaviors, although they may not have actually been observed. When they are present, they are a big red flag that someone may be at risk. Because warning signs are grounded in action—in things a faith member is currently doing—they signal what may be an immediate or near-term risk. Talking about or doing something related to killing oneself are the most serious examples of warning signs.
So, when considering the emotional health and suicide risk of a member of your faith community, you need to consider these risk factors—things about people; triggering events—things that happen to people; and warning signs—things that people do.
Let’s examine these in a bit more depth.