Module 2: Recognizing Suicide Risk

Warning Signs: Things People Do

warning signsWarning signs are observable, although not necessarily observed, actions. They signal that someone might attempt suicide in the near future. People who are thinking about suicide often act in certain ways that researchers have determined indicate possible suicidal ideation or a potential suicide attempt. Sometimes these warning signs are obvious, and sometimes they are hidden and more difficult to detect.

A warning sign is a signal that someone might attempt suicide in the near future.

They can be thought of as an observable symptom of suicidal ideation, much like a cough may be a symptom of a common cold. Ideally, all warning signs would be directly observable by others, but some are less apparent or may be intentionally obscured by the suicidal person, and therefore occur outside of direct observation. Sometimes the only clues we may have come from friends, family, or others that have observed warning signs or are vaguely “concerned” about someone.

What are the warning signs for suicide? They are about a dozen observable behaviors that may indicate an impending suicide attempt. Some may be more predictive of an impending attempt than others, and it is important to remember that someone may do some of these things and not be considering suicide at all, while others may outwardly show none of these signs yet be on the verge of a fatal attempt. Again, suicide is a complex human behavior.

However, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800.273.8255) uses a short list of significant warning signs in its support materials.

Although all of these indicate heightened near-term risk, the first two demand an immediate response whenever they are observed.
The presence of any of these warning signs strongly indicates a need to discuss the faith member’s emotional well-being—and to specifically address suicide—and, depending on their response, to include a mental health professional in the process.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill one’s self.
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online
  • Acquiring a lethal means of killing oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live.
  • Talking about feeling trapped or unbearable pain.
  • Talking about being a burden to others or that others would be better off if they were gone or dead.
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Behaving recklessly, impulsively, or as if they had little concern whether they lived or not.
  • Sleeping too little or too much.
  • Withdrawing or reporting feeling isolated.
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.
  • Displaying extreme mood swings.

It is worth noting also that risk is greater if a behavior is new or has increased and if it seems related to a painful event, loss, or change. Change in general demeanor and behavior are hallmarks of emotional struggles and always merit attention.