In the United States, death by suicide occurs an average of once every 11 minutes. Research from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that this rate represents a dramatic 33 percent increase over the past ten years.
Still, the number of people who seriously consider or attempt suicide is significantly greater. More than 47,500 people died by suicide in 2019 — while 12 million had serious suicidal thoughts, 3.5 million formed a plan, and 1.4 million made an attempt to take their own life.
The International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) organized the first World Suicide Prevention Day in 2003 to raise awareness of this growing threat to public health. Observed each year on September 10, it’s a significant day within Suicide Prevention Month — a month-long effort throughout September to:
• Reduce the stigma associated with mental health issues, including suicidal thoughts or ideations
• Educate people about suicide risk factors and warning signs
• Encourage communication in crisis
• Improve access to resources and expert support
This year, organizations around the world are partnering under a common theme — that we can each be the one to help save a life. This #BeThe1To campaign supports five evidence-based steps toward this goal of reducing someone’s risk of suicide, through actionable intervention and support.
This effort starts with understanding the warning signs of suicide. Clinical psychologist Ryan C. Warner, PhD, CRC, says there are common signs that suggest someone may be in distress, including:
• Increased isolation and withdrawal
• Excessively giving away personal items
• Increased substance use
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Extreme mood swings
• Talking about not wanting to live or having a strong desire to immediately relieve pain
If you recognize these types of behaviors in a loved one, the experts recommend several ways to acknowledge their struggle and offer support, potentially saving a life.
“There is a myth that talking about suicide or asking someone if they feel suicidal will encourage suicide attempts,” says Warner. “In fact, asking uncomfortable questions can provide the opportunity for your loved one to share some of their distress and process what they are going through.”
Research supports this impact, suggesting that talking about suicide actually reduces thoughts of self-harm, decreasing someone’s sense of isolation while encouraging mental health treatment.
It might be uncomfortable to start this conversation, but the experts say to:
• Be straightforward, asking directly about suicidal intentions without judgment
• Listen intently to the reasons behind their emotional pain, don’t speculate
• Keep the focus on them, listening for what motivates them to keep living
Whether you can see them in person or check in from a distance, research shows that keeping a consistent presence in someone’s life when they’re under distress can effectively deter self-harm. People with thoughts of suicide often withdraw and isolate — and improving their sense of connectedness and belonging can be life-saving.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, many suicide attempts occur without much planning. Reducing someone’s access to things that can cause self-harm — like medication or weapons — puts both time and distance between suicidal thoughts and the ability to take action, building space for intervention.
Warner says that once you are certain that there is no immediate danger, collaboratively creating a safety plan is essential to support someone at high risk for suicide. This safety net can include strategies like:
• Identifying what triggers feelings of hopelessness or distress
• Developing coping strategies for moments of crisis
• Understanding the available resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Maintaining someone’s feeling of connectedness is an important part of suicide prevention. Studies routinely show that the likelihood of self-harm is reduced when people regularly check in with high-risk friends and loved ones. Whether you reach out by phone, send a text, or visit in person, it reinforces to a loved one that you’re invested in their progress and committed to their long-term well-being.
This follow-up can also help you recognize when someone in distress might need additional, expert support.
“When in doubt, seek professional mental health support to have your loved one assessed and keep them safe in an acute crisis,” Warner says. “It’s important to remember that well-being is a team sport, and none of us is expected to perform solo.”
If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time, day or night, for free and confidential support, at 1-800-273-8255. You can also visit the organization’s website for more resources, including those specific to certain situations and events. Also find more information here on being part of the #BeThe1To campaign.