During interviews, people will sometimes ask me, “What is the biggest sign that someone might be thinking about suicide?” I find this question to be very difficult, because warning signs are as individual as each person.

Someone may have been depressed and isolated for a long time, and then suddenly they seem peaceful, happy, and outgoing. This may be a sign that they are getting better, but it also may be a sign that they have decided to die by suicide.  They may feel at peace with their decision, and now they’re wrapping up loose ends before they act on their thoughts. Another person may suddenly become very reckless, driving dangerously, increasing their use of drugs and alcohol, and making other unhealthy choices. Another person may simply drop all of their activities and involvement in their community. One person might tell someone directly that they are thinking of suicide. More often, they may make comments that just hint at their thoughts, using words like: “I don’t want to be a burden,” “I just wish I could sleep forever,” or “I’m tired of everything.”

While there is no single warning sign that all suicidal people display, there are some behaviors, listed below, that are more likely to occur if someone is having thoughts of suicide. This list is from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, a national agency that provides excellent research and resources related to suicide.

While these behaviors do indicate risk, we are not fortune tellers and can’t know for sure what individuals are thinking or what is motivating their behavior.  The best way of finding out if some comment or behavior is related to suicide, is simply to ask. And the good news is that we are all capable of asking. If we have a gut feeling that something is wrong, or if someone’s behavior is troubling us, we can ask them directly if they’re having thoughts of suicide. Stay tuned for my next post, which discusses ways to ask about suicide.

Some behaviors may indicate that a person is at immediate risk for suicide.

The following three should prompt you to immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or a mental health professional.

  • Talking about wanting to die or to kill oneself
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself, such as searching online or obtaining a gun
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live

Other behaviors may also indicate a serious risk—especially if the behavior is new; has increased; and/or seems related to a painful event, loss, or change.

  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings