Suicide: what are the warning signs?

by | Mental Health

Suicide: what are the warning signs?

Suicide is a tragic event for families, friends and the entire community. Education about suicide and its prevention is the first step in reducing its incidence.

Risk factors for suicide

There are a number of factors that can increase a person’s risk of suicide, and often these factors occur in combination. Some of the risk factors include the following.

  • Having a mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
  • Recently starting or stopping medicines for a mental health condition.
  • Having a personality disorder (such as borderline personality disorder).
  • Abusing illicit drugs or alcohol.
  • A family history of suicide or mental illness.
  • Having previously attempted suicide.
  • Having a chronic or disabling illness.

Feeling socially isolated or disconnected from others, being bullied, a relationship breakdown, grief, being in financial difficulties or being unemployed can also contribute.

Warning signs of suicide

There are many myths about suicide. The popular belief that ‘those that talk about it don’t do it’ is dangerously wrong. It is also dangerous to dismiss a non-fatal suicide attempt as ‘attention-seeking’. Many people who lose their lives to suicide have attempted suicide previously.

Some possible warning signs of suicide include the following.

  • Making direct or indirect threats about suicide.
  • References to, or a preoccupation with, suicide and death.
  • Feeling trapped or hopeless.
  • Feeling there is no reason for living.
  • Withdrawing from friends and family.
  • Feeling like a burden to others.
  • Risk taking behaviours.
  • Increasing drug or alcohol use.
  • Changes in personality or appearance.
  • Lack of motivation and interest in future activities.
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • A dramatic drop in performance at school or work.
  • Feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.
  • Strange or irrational behaviour.
  • Saying goodbye or ‘putting affairs in order’.

Helping someone at risk of suicide

It is important to remember that every suicide attempt or threat should be taken seriously.

Here are some ways to help.

  • It is important to listen and not be judgemental.
  • It is okay to ask direct questions about whether they have thought about suicide.
  • Let the person know that you are concerned and that you are there to help.
  • Make sure that they get professional help from a doctor, psychiatrist, counsellor or other health care professional they feel comfortable with and offer to go with them.
  • Let them know suicidal thoughts are often associated with very treatable disorders such as depression, and that suicidal thoughts often pass quickly.
  • Don’t leave the person alone.
  • Encourage them to call a mental health helpline or communicate via online web chat with one of these organisations – see table below.
  • Remove access to any items that could be used as a means of suicide.
  • In an emergency, call 000 for the ambulance service.

Suicide in teenagers

Suicidal behaviour is complex and may involve numerous factors, although most young people who die by suicide do have a mental health disorder such as depression, schizophrenia, anxiety or substance abuse.

Depression in adults is often fairly obvious. Sleep disturbance, poor appetite, low self-esteem, a gloomy outlook on life and tearfulness are typical symptoms. Teenagers may also show some of these clues to depression, but often it is not so obvious.

Excessive irritability, boredom, social withdrawal, dropping out of sports and other activities, and worsening school performance are some signs that a teenager may be depressed.

It may be hard to distinguish these warning symptoms from the ‘ups-and-downs’ which are a part of most teenagers’ lives. In depression these features are usually present constantly, with few, if any, good periods in between, and cause significant interference in school, social, work and family functioning.

If you are aware of a young person who seems constantly unhappy or bad tempered, don’t be afraid to ask them about how they are feeling.

Mental health helplines

If you or someone you know is feeling distressed and/or having suicidal thoughts, see your doctor, phone one of these helplines or click on the links below for online web chat counselling or support. Call 000 if life is in danger.

Lifeline (24 hours) 13 11 14
Kids Helpline (for young people aged 5 to 25 years) 1800 55 1800
Beyond Blue Support Service (24 hours) 1300 22 4636
MensLine Australia (24 hours) 1300 78 99 78
SANE Helpline – mental illness information, support and referral 1800 187 263
Suicide Call Back Service (24 hours) – free counselling support 1300 659 467

Mental health resources for teenagers

For more general, non-urgent information and resources for teenagers and young people on mental health and depression, see the websites below.

Depression/mental health resources for teenagers and young people
headspace Australia’s National Youth Mental Health Foundation. Headspace has centres around Australia where young people can participate in activities and get support and information.
youth beyondblue Beyondblue’s website for young people and their families to help deal with depression.
Reach Out Australia Information, stories, forums and blogs to help understanding of mental health issues and to connect young people with mental health issues.
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