It’s January, and the web is a-flood with ‘suicide warning sign’ images. Cute or stern-looking infographics tell you how you will know that your loved one is suicidal.
And I, someone who has been actively suicidal for 20 years, sit behind my keyboard and weep.
Do these lists contain signs that someone is struggling needs help? Sometimes, depending on the context of the situation and the person’s circumstances. Still, by no means does that make them reliable hallmarks of impending suicide. What’s worse, most of the ‘signs’ on these social media lists are plain wrong!
Being wrong about this can cost someone their life. I’ve been there, at both ends of the situation, and it didn’t end well for everyone.
That is why in this post, I’m first going to debunk some of the ‘usual suspects’ that feature on these lists. Then I’m going to share the one sure sign that will tell you with the best possible certainty whether someone you care about is suicidal or not.
(Not) Warning Signs of Suicide
Trouble sleeping is caused by stress or bad dietary choices. Having a habit of snacking on some nuts and chocolate shortly before bedtime, for example, can keep you lying awake for hours.
Stress causing sleeplessness is why this is a symptom in both anxiety and depression. But millions of people suffer from either or both conditions without ever becoming suicidal. Plus, I know from personal experience that you can sleep soundly, and still want to kill yourself.
Loss of Interest
Interest in anything is personal and can change quickly. While listlessness is a symptom of depression and burn-out, it can also have a host of other, less nefarious causes. Don’t get me wrong, feeling listless is not a sign of good mental and physical health, but it doesn’t necessarily herald suicide.
What is dangerous behaviour? That, too, is very personal. My brother-in-law is a seriously reckless driver, but he isn’t suicidal. He just isn’t very good at navigating traffic. What about excessive drinking or high-risk sports? Some people can hold their drinks better than others. What makes a night on the town for one person, puts another into a coma. What may look like self-harm to you may be an extreme hobby or least-harmless coping mechanism for the person in question.
Actual self-harm is another thing. Actively hurting yourself with the intention to is indeed a prelude to suicide.
However, for many people who self-harm, that act answers the instinctive compulsion to do themselves an injury without actually killing themselves. It is meant to show on the outside how much they are hurting on the inside. If they hide their wounds, the self-harm is intended to feel physical pain that matches the emotional pain they feel: a bit like straightening out a cognitive dissonance. In both cases, the self-harm prevents actual suicide.
Until that doesn’t work anymore, which is always a risk. So, when someone physically hurts themselves, they need help finding a better way of managing the issues they experience.
Still, not all self-destructive behaviour is a sign that someone is going to become actively suicidal.
Withdrawing from Activities
This is a sign of overwhelm, not suicide. Any introvert does this when they have been around too many people for a while. Anyone with sensory processing issues does this. All the time!
True, people with anxiety and depression also have a tendency to withdraw, but for the same reason: sensory and/or social overwhelm. When you suffer from a mental illness, you are often more easily overwhelmed than other people.
People who are already too overwhelmed as a result of sensory processing issues may indeed become suicidal, but only when they are pushed beyond their limits by people or circumstances. Then they resist joining any activity because they are terrified. And terror caused by unrelenting pressure, that can lead to suicide.
Other than that, withdrawing from social settings is in no way a sign of someone being suicidal.
Changes in appearance
A person’s appearance can change in many ways. A sudden change of wardrobe or fashion style can have a number of different reasons, some more innocent than others.
However, when someone stops looking after themselves – don’t eat, don’t wash, don’t change clothes, etc. – that is a sign that they need help. Again, it is not a sign of imminent suicide attempts, but it is clear they need a gentle but firm intervention to prevent their condition worsening.
Excessive sadness or moodiness
Something to be mindful of, but again, this is not a sign of active suicidal episodes. Dark moods are the main symptom of depression. They may vary from numbness to irritability to all-out rage. Yes, this is an indication that someone needs help, but for depression or the underlying mental condition, not for being suicidal.
If someone does takes the time to make preparations, they will make sure no one ever notices… That is why so many planned suicides appear to come out of the blue. The process was going on for months, but they often hide it very, very well.
This one is true, only most people don’t notice this change in a person. We like that they are finally feeling less stressed. That’s a good sign, right? They’re doing better at last! And when you ask, they will confirm that.
Problem is, they are less stressed because they finally have a full-proof, permanent solution to escape the situation that has been tormenting them. But they won’t tell you that, and you won’t know until it’s too late.
Talking About Wanting To Die Or Kill Oneself
Seems a sure-fire warning sign, doesn’t it?
Sorry, but no.
A large number of people who are suicidal do not talk about it. At all. Ever. They don’t want anyone to know. The logic behind their reasoning is too complex for this post, but the result is the same: they don’t speak up.
However, I don’t deny that people who do talk about wanting to die are absolutely desperate for help – and they should receive it!
In their hopelessness, they express their fears in words that do justice to their suffering: death, dying, violently or painfully. It is a definite warning sign that such a person needs help – and wants help. That is why they voice their despair. The best you can do then is to help them find the help they need.
The Problem With Lists
What makes lists of supposed suicide warning signals problematic, is that they misinform people. With two tragic consequences:
When you are actually suicidal yourself and you see those lists, there is a fair chance you feel kicked in the gut. In your mind, you have been screaming your pain from the rooftops, and no one cares.
Now here is a list of signals. You have been broadcasting those, but still no one picks up on the cues.
No one hears you. You might as well not exist at all…
When you are not depressed or suicidal, you see those signs, and think: “I’m a bit worried about my friend, but now I know what to look for so it doesn’t go wrong.” The list may even be from a reputable suicide prevention source, so understandably you trust it.
Fortunately, your friend doesn’t tick any of the boxes. Sure, they are a little down, but they can still laugh about silly movies. They seem a bit stressed about work, but isn’t everyone? And when you ask them, they brush it off. And you let them, because there’s no reason not to. They don’t talk about wanting to die, they aren’t giving stuff away. Sure, they’re selling their apartment, but that’s because they found something better in another neighbourhood, like they told you the other day. Things are not fine, but they’re under control.
Until the call comes from a mutual friend, and the world stops…
Lost In Translation
Both sides of this story are heartbreakingly common. The reason this happens is simple, but no less detrimental to everyone involved: suicidal people and non-suicidal people have a completely different way of communicating and interpreting other people’s behaviour.
When you are anxious, depressed and especially when you are suicidal, you often feel like you shouldn’t bother people with your problems. So when you feel bad, maybe thinking of hurting yourself, and your partner wants to visit a friend tonight, you smile and let them have their fun. You may tell the friend sitting next to you that you’re “not in a great mood today”, when what you feel is the irresistible urge to take the car and drive yourself into a tree at high speed.
This dissonance between what you say and what you feel goes unknown to you. You are certain you have been so very clear about your distress – and the other person doesn’t even blink! Don’t they care?
The other person does care, but when you are not suffering from any of the mental illnesses that can lead to suicidal ideation, none of this registers as a call for help. “Everyone has a bad day sometimes, right? There is no cause for alarm.”
People do earnestly look for signs of distress, but their healthy mind doesn’t recognize them as such, because the signals suicidal people give are often not as clear-cut as the lists made them out to be.
How To Find Out Instead
Suicidal episodes can vary strongly even in the same person. They can be fantasies, maybe with a side of self-harm, but nothing else. They can be impulsive, spur-of-the-moment acts. They can be planned and prepped and kept under the radar until it’s too late.
In most cases, no one sees it coming. Not even the person who ends up taking their life may have felt it coming – trust me, I’ve had too many narrow misses that came on without warning.
Then how can you know whether someone you care about is suicidal?
You ask them.
Don’t worry about giving them ideas. Someone who is truly suicidal has given it tons more thought than you can imagine. What they need is for someone to show a genuine interest.
So if you are worried they may want to hurt themselves, ask them.
Question & Answers
Don’t expect a clear ‘yes’ first time around. Maybe they truly aren’t thinking about ending their life, at least not in that moment. Suicidal episodes come and go, so if you notice them struggling more than usual at a later moment, ask again.
If they brush you off, don’t pressure. Just let them know that they can talk to you should they want to – and keep that promise when they do come to you!
Is that all? In essence, yes. Suffering from suicidal ideation can take on so many shapes, and so much depends on the individual, that the only way to know for semi-certain is to ask them directly.
Will that always work? No. Unfortunately there will always be people who, for reasons only they know, will not show their pain to anyone. They will continue refuse the hand you extend to them, no matter how many times you offer it.
Don’t Panic, Just Be There
In the event they do say ‘yes’ when you ask them if they are feeling suicidal, please don’t panic. They are trusting you with their life. Be supportive, don’t judge, don’t pressure. Just be there and help them find the right care that works for them.
But in many cases, you may never know how much your simple show of interest meant. When you were right to worry, but they never answered with ‘yes’ because knowing that someone – you – genuinely cares enough to ask may be the little ray of hope they needed to hold on to life for bit longer.
That does infinitely more good than sharing over-simplified infographics on Facebook.
If you want to understand how suicide works and what you can do to provide better support for yourself or your loved one, the Ship Psychology Lifelines can help you out.