There is a heavy pause in the air. Very rarely in our busy 24/7 society, we encounter these silent moments, but every time a celebrity or a familiar person commits suicide the world seems to momentarily stop spinning. Shocked into a gasp of disbelief, wonderment, sadness, and awareness, this pause reminds us of the fragility of life.
Then come the questions about the incident: How did they do it? Why did this happen? Who did they leave behind? Did anyone see this coming? These questions are inevitably followed by more intimate ones relating to ourselves and those close to us: Could someone I know do this? How are the people I love doing? How am I doing? Am I missing something?
With every unexpected loss, a subject normally never spoken about in polite company suddenly becomes part of casual conversation. As a strange way of showing concern about loved ones, “Have you heard about…” becomes an opening comment. Anxious to find answers to the questions we keep obsessing over, body language, the tone of voice, and the spoken response is scrutinized for any warning signs of suicidal thinking. But what is a person looking for? Do they even know how to discern between normal behavior and dangerous warnings?
Sadly it is challenging to predict when, where, how, and who is going to commit suicide even for trained professionals. Sometimes an experienced eye can catch the telling subtleties and are able to prevent the final act. Other times even the most perceptive miss key indicators and the consequences are devastating. If therapists struggle despite years of training and thousands of hours counseling, how much more difficult is it for family and friends of the departed?
Amidst the confusion, there are a few things that can sometimes indicate a person is suicidal. Below are warning indicators that a person needs immediate professional help.
- Loss of identity. This is perhaps the earliest warning signal of suicidal contemplation. At this stage, a person loses that which they identify themselves as being and as a result slips into a state of purposelessness. For instance, a business owner’s company files for bankruptcy and they find themselves out of work. Or family oriented person loses their spouse and children in a divorce and now has difficulty connecting to a vital part of their personality. Maybe an artist is forced to stop creating, their outlet of expression effectively cut off. Whatever the case, how a person defines themselves is now gone and they have no faith they can live without it.
- Deep depression. After such a loss, a person usually sinks into a deep depression. Those willing to admit to the severe level of sadness are ironically not as close to the edge of suicide as those in denial. This is because a person who is unaware of their own intense emotions only worsens their depression. A lack of communication to the suppressed parts often catch them off guard and cause them to make erratic spontaneous decisions possibly as severe as taking their own life.
- Talks openly. The first trial balloon, or attempt to test the value of a person’s contribution to others around them, is usually some offhanded comment done in a shockingly inappropriate time. This is done to see if anyone is paying attention to their pain. A statement like “I just wish it would all be over,” is designed to elicit a response that proves to the inquirer the people they care about are listening and concerned. Failure for anyone to address the comment, or understand the severity of it, usually leaves the person believing that they too are OK with the death.
- Rehearsals. In order for a person to take their own life, they need some sort of planning. Most of this is done in their own head, but often there are outward indicators. Self-harming behavior such as cutting, overmedicating, or burning is preparation for the ultimate harming act. This is why the question, “Do you have a plan,” is so important to ask when someone threatens themselves with suicide.
- Organizing affairs. As a person ponders their own death, they often practice rituals to tie up and loose ends. This could be updating a will, spending an inordinate amount of money, visiting family members not frequently seen, and videoing instructions to leave behind. To an unsuspecting observer, this might look very normal and not be an indication of anything. However, done in conjunction with other items on this list this is very telling of a person’s conviction.
- Gifting. Along with organizing their affairs, a person begins to gift valuable items to ensure they reach their intended place or receiver. Not trusting that their wishes will be addressed any better after they have departed than they did the living, a person carefully chooses who will get what and begins to give it away. This could be anything between small items such as jewelry to larger items such as a vehicle.
- Sudden contentment. When the gifting starts, a person switches from a depressed state to a strange contentment. Most frequently mistake this as a positive consequence of their recent giving behavior. But it is not. Rather, it is a morbid signal that they have resolved themselves to end everything. At this point, they are soaking up the last bit of pleasure in seeing others happy by their recent gifting that they can, knowing it will be their last opportunity to see such a thing.
- Long good-byes. Perhaps a hug last a bit longer than usual or there is an additional feeling of finality to the good-bye, but a casual moment of departure seems to stand still as if going through slow motion. There are more phone calls, text messages, emails, or notes that are sent in the days preceding that in the weeks prior, and all of these communications echo of final statements or confessions.
- Accessible method. All of the planning, organizing, and goodbyes are foreshadowing for the actual event. The method of choice is usually predetermined early on, but without accessibility, it is more difficult to carry out. A vital follow-up question to, “Do you have a plan,” is “Do you have access to it.” Many suicide plans have been foiled by taking away their preferred method, so by eliminating access, there is still a way to delay or completely stop the suicide.
- A surge of dis-courage. Suicide is not courageous, it is dis-courageous. Those seriously considering suicide area usually found at a low point of doing whatever it takes to escape their situation. This fearful attitude can be countered with reinforced reminders to be courageous from loved ones. Courage is confronting life in the absence of a lost identity. Courage is asking for help even when no one notices how bad things have gotten. Courage is leaving the past behind, living in the present day, and despite the odds remaining hopeful for the future. With focused kindness and patience, even the most lost person can be strong.
Every life is valuable and suicide is never the answer. A suicidal attitude, though difficult to identify, must be addressed and reconciled for the sake of not only the victim’s life but also the lives of all those surrounding them. If you or someone you know is struggling, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, and do not hesitate to seek professional assistance.