Signs That Someone Is Contemplating Suicide
Recognizing that someone may be considering suicide can be uniquely challenging. Some people will display external signs that they’re at risk or will be vocal about their considerations. Others make an effort to conceal their suicidal ideation and hide their intentions from others.
Because it’s impossible to know what’s going on in another person’s head, anyone who sees one or more of the below warning signs—or simply suspects that their loved one may be thinking of suicide, absent any of the below—should ask, as reaching out could help save a life. Despite widespread fears about such an inquiry, research has consistently shown that asking someone whether they are contemplating suicide will not “put the idea in their head” if it wasn’t there to begin with.
For immediate help in the U.S., 24/7: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK. Outside of the U.S., visit the International Resources page for suicide hotlines in your country. To find a therapist near you, see the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Common Warning Signs
Suicidal intentions aren’t always obvious to the untrained eye, especially among those who endeavor to keep them hidden. However, there are many outward signals that someone is thinking of suicide, and becoming familiar with common signs, especially subtler ones, can help someone identify a loved one who may be at risk.
Common warning signs of suicidal behavior include:
- Talks about feeling hopeless, worthless, “trapped,” or like he has no reason to keep living
- Makes a will, gives away personal possessions, or tries to “get her affairs in order”
- Searches for means to harm himself, such as how to buy a gun or access dangerous medications
- Sleeps too little or too much
- Eats too little or too much
- Shows signs of despair or has significant mood swings
- Acts agitated, anxious, or aggressive
- Avoids other people, including loved ones; spends more time than usual alone
- Behaves recklessly
- Drinks alcohol or uses drugs excessively
- Has experienced a severe life stressor recently, such as the death of a spouse, the loss of a job, or a traumatic event
- Has attempted suicide or demonstrated suicidal behavior in the past
What are the most common indicators that someone is thinking about suicide?
For those at risk of attempting suicide, abrupt changes in mood and behavior—including dramatic mood swings, or a sudden uplift in mood after a long period of despair—are common indicators that someone is contemplating ending their own life. Talking about feeling worthless, hopeless, like a burden, or like others will be “better off” without them are common indicators of suicidal thoughts or behavior; some evidence suggests that feeling like a burden on others may be a particularly strong predictor of suicidal behavior and that language to that effect should be taken seriously. Giving away needed possessions without a clear reason or “saying goodbye” to loved ones are also signs of potential suicidality that should be addressed.
Can someone die by suicide without displaying any warning signs?
Yes. Some people take their lives impulsively or in response to a severe and sudden stressor, without pondering it extensively beforehand; these individuals may not display any signs and may even appear outwardly well. Others, sadly, may go to great lengths to hide any suicidal intentions from family or friends, even if they’ve been planning their attempt for weeks or months. These deaths can be particularly painful for those left behind; it’s not uncommon to feel immense guilt or like one “should have known” that their loved one was in such pain. It’s important to remember that while no one is at fault for another's suicide, there is never shame in seeking help for intense feelings of grief or regret.
My loved one talks about death frequently. What should I do?
Talking about death is considered taboo by many and can trigger feelings of discomfort, and it’s natural to feel worried if a loved one brings it up frequently for seemingly no reason. But talking about death, in itself, is not necessarily an indicator that someone is suicidal; they may be grappling with their own mortality, have recently lost someone, or are just curious about the fleeting nature of human existence.
On the other hand, preoccupation with death—and especially preoccupation with death by suicide—especially combined with other warning signs, could be an indicator that a loved one is struggling with depression or despair. The best way to uncover a loved one’s intentions is to simply ask, in a non-judgmental manner. If they admit that their thoughts of death are tied to suicidal ideation, the next step is to get help. If not, engaging in conversation with them and talking openly about death when necessary can help foster closeness and may help ease anxiety about one's own mortality, research suggests.
My partner often threatens to kill himself during fights, and says he’d kill himself if I ever left him. How should I respond?
It’s terrifying when a partner or other loved one threatens to harm themselves, especially in the middle of an already tense situation. Though it can be challenging to remain calm, the first step is to assess the situation: If the partner has a clear plan to die by suicide or can easily access the means to do so, get immediate help—either by calling your local emergency number or reaching out to a suicide hotline in your country.
However, regularly threatening suicide during disagreements or as a way to keep a partner from leaving is a form of emotional abuse. It’s normal to feel pressured to stay after a partner threatens to harm themselves, but doing so will likely not improve the situation; many people who get what they want after making such a threat will use the tactic again in the future. Anyone whose partner repeatedly says they’re going to kill themselves whenever things aren’t going their way should seek help from a qualified professional, to help them cope with the emotional fallout and to potentially make a plan for leaving the relationship if the threats continue. They may also want to encourage their partner to get help, especially if they have a mental illness—such as borderline personality disorder—that makes such threats more common.
In the end, they should also remember that they are not responsible for what their partner chooses to do—and if their partner follows through on their threat, they are certainly not at fault. Such intentionally manipulative threats of suicide are not expressions of love or devotion, and should not be mistaken for such.
Could reckless or dangerous behavior mean that someone is trying to hurt themselves?
Yes. Some people are reckless by nature, and risky behavior on their part may not indicate that they are thinking of hurting themselves. However, uncharacteristic or sudden reckless behavior—such as driving wildly, drinking excessively, or getting into fights—could indicate that someone is trying to hurt themselves, no longer values their life, and/or may intend to die as a direct result of their actions. “Suicide by cop” is one term for such behavior; some suicidal individuals intentionally behave in a dangerous or threatening manner with the hopes of having police respond violently. Reckless behavior should be taken seriously, with the help of a mental health professional if necessary.
Recognizing When You’re In Crisis
People who have never experienced suicidal thoughts may imagine that a suicidall crisis would be difficult to miss or ignore. But suicidal ideation isn't always like flipping a switch. Rather than suddenly arriving at once (though that is possible), it may instead come on gradually, or ebb and flow over a period of weeks or months. Someone who has experienced fleeting or passive suicidal thoughts for a long time may not immediately recognize when those thoughts turn truly dangerous. This is why experts emphasize that anyone with more than fleeting thoughts of suicide, death, or self-injury should seek mental healthcare—and if you're not sure, it doesn't hurt to reach out to someone just in case.
Am I at risk of suicide?
Countless people, at some time in their life, have had passing thoughts of suicide, and most people feel hopeless or worthless at least occasionally. But since most people do not attempt suicide, it can be difficult to know when those thoughts are indicative of real risk or when they’re normal moments of very low mood that will pass.
While certain risk factors—like a family history of suicide, past suicide attempts, and certain mental health disorders—can increase the likelihood that someone will attempt suicide, they are not perfect predictors. Individuals with these risk factors should certainly keep them in mind and seek help once thoughts of suicide start to become prevalent. But anyone who finds themselves feeling hopeless or worthless some or most of the time, like they’re a burden to others, that they’d be better off dead, or that suicide might be a good idea should seek immediate help, either from a professional or from a loved one. Suicidal ideation can ramp up quickly; it’s always better to be safe and seek assistance whenever warning signs first appear.
I think about suicide or dying often. How do I know when it’s time to seek help?
Persistent thoughts of suicide or dying (even passive thoughts such as “I wish I’d never been born,” or “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up,”) should be taken seriously, and anytime they become noticeable or concerning, a person should seek help. Even if the person has no concrete plan for dying by suicide, a sudden spike in such thinking is likely indicative of a larger mental health problem or a significant life challenge that can be productively addressed. There is no shame in seeking help. Even if the suicidal ideation hasn’t yet shifted from passive (thinking about suicide) to active (planning how one will die by suicide), talking to a loved one or therapist about such thoughts is the first step to overcoming them, strengthening mental well-being, and moving toward recovery.
What happens if I tell my therapist I’m thinking of suicide?
Many people who are thinking about suicide hesitate to tell their therapist, out of fear that they might be committed to an in-patient program of some sort or that friends and family will be alerted. But mental health clinicians are specifically trained to navigate these discussions without judgment or rash action, and a good therapist will respond compassionately and calmly to the client’s disclosure.
In most cases, a therapy client who mentions that they are thinking of suicide will first be asked a few follow-up questions—like whether the thoughts are active or passive, whether they have a specific plan, and whether they have ready access to a means of suicide (i.e. a gun). If the clinician concludes that the client is not at immediate risk, they will likely work with them to develop a safety plan in case the thoughts escalate. In the meantime, the therapist and client will explore the source of the suicidal thoughts and help her develop alternative coping mechanisms for feelings of hopelessness or despair.
Self-harm—or the act of deliberately inflicting pain or damage to one's own body—is often conflated with suicidal ideation or intention. But though some people who self-harm do also have thoughts of suicide, that isn't universally the case. Self-harm can be dangerous in itself, however, and indicates some degree of mental unwellness, even absent any suicidal thoughts; thus, anyone who is self-harming, or has a loved one who is doing so, should seek help as soon as possible, regardless of the behavior's connection to suicidality.
For more on coping with self-injury, see Self-Harm.
Does self-harm always indicate suicidality?
Not necessarily. Self-harm does precede suicide in some cases, and it may be a cry for help from someone who has suicidal intentions. However, many people who self-harm have no intention of dying and are actively not suicidal.
Why would someone self-harm if they weren’t thinking of suicide?
Self-injury is most often used as a way to release intense negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, or shame. Those who have faced trauma or are in an unsafe situation may practice self-harm as a way to gain some semblance of control over their lives.
But though self-injury may bring temporary relief, it rarely helps with long-term emotion management; without help, the individual may continue to self-harm and may be at risk for other mental health problems down the road, including a heightened risk of suicide. Thus, it’s always important to seek help for self-injury, even if the person has no active thoughts of suicide.
Could non-suicidal self-harm accidentally lead to death?
Yes. Self-harm can be dangerous even without suicidal intent, and some people who have no wish to die may accidentally cause more damage than intended and, in extreme cases, put their life at risk. While this appears to be rare, it’s important to take signs of self-harm seriously, before it escalates.
How should I respond when a loved one is self-harming?
Learning that a loved one—especially a child—is self-harming can be confusing and frightening. It’s important to remember that self-harm is not just a means to get attention; it’s an unhealthy response to negative emotions that are very real and that may be debilitating. Responding with compassion, and connecting the loved one to mental health services, is the best approach. Making an effort to maintain connections with the loved one—by regularly spending time with them, asking them how they’re doing, and helping them engage in self-care—can help them navigate emotional pain and better support their own well-being without turning to self-harm.