Suicide Prevention is Everybody’s Business

What if you could prevent a loved one from killing themselves, simply by asking them about it? This fundamental action — compassionately presented and prepared for – may be the single most effective way to stop suicide. At the recent Vermont Suicide Prevention Symposium, speaker after speaker drove home one core message: talk about it. Ask the question directly: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” 

Think of it as another take on “If you see something, say something.” If you notice something, ask. 

Most people who die by suicide actually send up warning signals before they do. But most family members miss them. It’s only in hindsight that they recall some particular comment to which they wished they had paid closer attention, or done something about. Know the warning signs. And act on them.

Warning Signs of Suicide

  • Threatening to hurt or kill himself/herself.
  • Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide.
  • Having rage, anger or seeking revenge.
  • Withdrawing from friends, family or society.
  • Seeking access to pills, weapons or other means.
  • Expressing hopelessness, no reason for living or having no sense of purpose in life.
  • Feeling trapped.

Know What To Do (And What Not To Do)

If you notice any of these warning signs, take action. It’s important to heed any red flags. Do not ignore them. Don’t minimize it or change the subject. Avoid stigmatizing language (“that’s crazy!”). And please, don’t insinuate they’re just looking for attention or judge them in any way. Put your preconceptions aside. It is your chance to pull back the veils on a taboo subject and really listen. Be present to what they’re feeling.

Granted, these may not be simple conversations. It may feel really awkward to ask someone outright if they’re thinking of dying by suicide. That’s especially true if you come from a family or culture where people don’t talk about these things. Likewise if you have a strained relationship with the person. Or, maybe you’re afraid the dark place they’re in will get even darker. 

It’s Okay to Ask!

Probably the biggest myth around suicide is that if you ask someone about it, you’ll “put the idea into their head.” It’s just not so. In fact, study after study has shown just the opposite. Opening a conversation, giving people a chance to talk about it without being judged, can make all the difference. 

“Asking someone if they’re thinking of killing themselves is the best way to keep someone from killing themselves.”

~ Lisa Horowitz, National Institute of Mental Health suicide researcher

Lisa Horowitz is a pediatric psychologist and staff scientist at NIMH. She has led five large studies investigating universal screening for suicide in healthcare settings. Her team developed a simple, five-point questionnaire to quickly screen for signs that suggest someone may be at heightened risk for completing suicide. The take-home message from her research? “It’s really important to ask everyone.”

“You can’t physically see suicide risk,” Horowitz said at the Vermont Suicide Prevention Symposium Aug. 4. “Ask directly. If someone doesn’t ask directly, the person most likely not will not talk about it.”

Destigmatizing the Conversation About Suicide

Horowitz’s screening tool is now being tested in schools as well as hospitals and clinics serving Native Americans and other high-risk populations. The hope is that by casting a wider net, more people at risk can be identified, and more lives saved.

What about parents? Are they the right people to “screen” their own kids for suicide? Horowitz says she gets asked this a lot. “My answer is: parents should talk. Help people initiate these conversations, and brace for the answers that might be scary. People want to talk about things that they’re never asked about.”

Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, echoed these sentiments in his keynote address at the recent NAMICon mental health conference. “Ask everyone,” he said. “It turns out that works.” In 2019, suicide rates went down for the first time in 20 years. Destigmatizing the conversation, whether it’s in the doctor’s office or at the kitchen table, is critical. 

Learn More and Find Suicide Prevention Resources

Remember, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. See the resources below for helpful guides and videos that offer guidance on what to say and how to get help.

Find Help for Suicide:

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Learn about local community mental health centers that provide services and supports, including 24/7 mental health crisis response. VCP network agencies located in your community can support you in finding the help you need.

Visit the National Council for Mental Well-Being’s Suicide Prevention page.

Also Read:

From the Mayo Clinic: What to do when someone is suicidal.

How to talk about suicide, from the Indian Health Service, provides useful guidance on recognizing suicide warning signs and responding appropriately.

From Self magazine: How Not to Talk About Suicide offers good advice on what to do and not do. Guest Blog by Lance Metayer: Preventing Youth Suicide Takes a Community.

Blog written by Brenda Patoine on behalf of VCN/Vermont Care Partners for COVID Support Vermont, a grant funded by FEMA and the Vermont Department of Mental Health

Need to Talk?

Call 2-1-1 (in Vermont) for assistance.

In Crisis? 

If you or someone you care for is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, you can: call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-825; text VT to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor 24/7; connect with your local community mental health center for 24/7 support. 

Find Help

Find resources and tools for coping with stress at

One-click translation to 100 languages of most everything on the website, plus Multilingual Resources.

Find your local community mental health center by visiting Vermont Care Partners.

COVID Support VT is funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency, managed by Vermont’s Department of Mental Health, and administered by Vermont Care Partners, a statewide network of 16 non-profit community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use, and intellectual and developmental disability services and supports. 

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