Suicide Prevention: Learn How to Help Yourself and Loved Ones

September 07, 2023

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Barry D. Sarvet, MD Barry D. Sarvet, MD View Profile
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Possibilities of a recession, a difficult housing market, and lingering concerns about COVID-19 outbreaks has had a serious impact on many people’s mental health.

The impact of these and other stressors includes the risk of depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, and suicide.

“Social distancing and isolation during the pandemic resulted in extreme loneliness for some people, especially the elderly, who may have already been dealing with a variety of mental health conditions such as depression, which can lead to suicide. The economic hardships caused by unemployment, the loss of your own small business, and attempting to meet growing bills, are also contributing to an increase in suicides,” said Dr. Barry Sarvet, chair, of the Department of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

September is Suicide Awareness Month, a Time to Raise Awareness and #BeThere to Help Prevent Suicide

September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day. During this time of year especially, organizations and community members work to raise awareness about the seriousness of suicide and how to prevent it.

More people are affected by stress and suicide than you may realize.

A 2022 poll by the American Psychology Association found that 27% of responders said that most days they are so stressed they can’t function. Adults ages 18 to 44 were more likely than older adults to feel “completely overwhelmed most days.” 76% of stressed adults reported other aspects of their life being impacted, such as mental health, eating habits, physical health, and interest in their hobbies.

Data from the National Center for Health Statistics outlines how prevalent suicide is in the United States:

  • Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24 years old
  • Suicide rate increases were seen for Black men (1.7% increase), Asian/Pacific Islanders (2.8% increase), and older adults age 85+ (5.2% increase)
  • About 40-50% of people know someone who has died by suicide

Mental health conditions are often seen as the cause of suicide, but suicide is rarely caused by any single factor. In fact, many people who die by suicide are not known to have a diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death. Other problems often contribute to suicide, such as those related to relationships, substance use, physical health, and job, money, legal, or housing stress. 

Know the Warning Signs for Suicide Prevention

The CDC lists 12 warning signs of suicide as:

  • Feeling like a burden
  • Being isolated
  • Increased anxiety
  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Increased substance use
  • Looking for ways to access lethal means
  • Increased anger or rage
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Expressing hopelessness
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Talking or posting about wanting to die
  • Making plans for suicide

“People who attempt to take their own lives often are profoundly hopeless and need people around them to notice their suffering and to help them to seek treatment. It’s really important for people to learn about the signs of depression, substance use disorders, and other common behavioral health conditions. It’s time for us to let go of the stigma that has made it so difficult for people to talk about these things,” said Dr. Sarvet.

Recognizing Depression Symptoms

The good news is that depression can be treated, and when suicidal intent or risk is detected early, lives can be saved. A few examples of risk factors include mental illness, substance abuse, previous suicide attempts, hopelessness, access to lethal means, recent loss of loved ones, unemployment, and vulnerability to self-harm.

Signs and symptoms of depression and possible risk for suicide include a sad mood, crying, loss of interest in things once enjoyed, decreased energy, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping and concentrating, and comments such as ‘life isn’t worth living.’

Also, the National Institute of Mental Health warns that people who threaten, talk or write about death, dying and suicide, or who seek access to a means to hurt or kill themselves, are exhibiting suicidal behaviors and are at risk of suicide.

Recognizing Depression in Teenagers

“In teenagers, depression is often complicated by disciplinary problems, school underachievement, interpersonal conflict, and drug and alcohol problems. It takes a great deal of understanding and compassion to notice the depressed person in the middle of all of this, who may be at serious risk for suicide,” said Dr. Sarvet.

Dr. Sarvet noted that it is important for parents and caring adults to learn how to recognize depression in teenagers, including:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent and disturbing nightmares
  • Increased aggression or disobedience
  • Frequent temper tantrums.

Develop a Suicide Safety Plan

Dr. Sarvet suggested working with your doctor or therapist to create a written “suicide safety plan” should you begin to experience thoughts of harming yourself.

When creating your plan, consider listing answers to the following:

  • What are some warning signs or triggers of a developing crisis such as thoughts, images, mood, situation, behavior?
  • What are some internal coping strategies, such as relaxation techniques or physical activity?
  • Which people and social settings can offer distraction?
  • Who can you ask for help?
  • Which professionals or agencies to contact in a crisis?
  • What are steps for making the physical environment safer?
  • Where is a safe place you can go?
  • What are things worth living for? 

What to Do If You Think a Loved One is Showing Suicide Warning Signs

If you have a loved one exhibiting concerning behaviors or thoughts, you should ask them what you can do to help. You can point out your observation that they seem sad and can encourage them to get help initially through their primary care doctor.

Their doctor can assess the situation and prescribe medications or make a referral to a mental health professional.

Resources for You and Your Loved Ones.

The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides 24/7, free, and confidential support for people in a crisis and their loved ones. You can call or text 988.

When you call:

  1. You’ll hear an automated message that you’ve connected with the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
  2. You’ll hear music as you’re connected with a crisis counselor at the closest crisis center.
  3. A crisis counselor will pick up the phone to listen, provide support, and connect you with resources.

988 will only call emergency services if your life is in danger. That’s less than two percent of calls made by people in Massachusetts.

Western Massachusetts residents can also call the Behavioral Health Network's (BHN) Crisis Services at 413-733-6661. 413 Cares can also help connect you to local resources.

Learn more about preventing suicide on the CDC's website. 

You can also talk with your primary care provider for a referral to a mental health professional or visit your local emergency room. At some Baystate Medical practices, we offer Integrated Behavioral Health services. Behavioral health professionals work directly with your doctor, so you can get connected with behavioral health services faster, oftentimes while you're already at your appointment.

Dr. Sarvet noted suicide touches everyone.

The suicide death of a loved one or close friend can have a profound impact on survivors who often feel partly responsible for the tragedy. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a list of nearby support groups for those coping with a suicide loss.

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