Most people, including many mental health professionals, shy away from discussing suicidal thoughts with someone who is clearly struggling with life challenges. After all, having someone you love and care about decide to end their own life is devastating. But the reality is that if someone is considering suicide, your talking about it is not going to exacerbate the issue; if anything, the person may be relieved that someone else recognizes their agony.
According to Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who studies suicidology, most people who decide to commit suicide have a critical inner voice that berates them relentlessly, making suicide seem like the only viable solution to end the pain. This voice drives people to behave in ways that they might not if they were feeling well. So, while you cannot read the mind of your ill partner, you can observe behavioral warning signs that your partner may be planning to commit suicide.
The American Association for Suicidology developed a mnemonic–IS PATH WARM?–to help people recognize the warning signs of suicide. It should be noted that these are not a checklist to determine whether a person will commit suicide–if your partner is exhibiting any of these signs, seek immediate help by calling 911, taking them to the nearest emergency room, or calling The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
I – Ideation: Is the person making threats or talking about killing themselves? Take it seriously: better to overreact and save a life than ignore it and be sorry later.
S – Substance Abuse: This can show up in a few ways: excessive drinking or drug use (perhaps with the hope of overdosing); using substances and then engaging in reckless behavior, such as driving, going swimming, or isolating from others; or hoarding medications (prescription or OTC) with the purpose of overdosing
P – Purposelessness: Does your partner have a job? Are they isolated from others? Have they been engaged in meaningful activities? If not, it may be a sign that they are “finishing up business” so that others won’t be “inconvenienced” if they are no longer around.
A – Anxiety: People who commit suicide have often not slept well for days or weeks prior to the suicide attempt. Anxiety, agitation, and restlessness are all signs that your partner is in distress.
T – Trapped: If your partner has been making comments about there being “no way out” of a bad situation, take it seriously. Examples of this might be impending jail time, an upcoming court hearing, home foreclosure, or public exposure of an embarrassing situation.
H – Hopelessness: If your partner no longer looks forward to the future, or has made comments about not being there for something you both know is coming (such as a wedding or birthday), that would be your opening to find out what your partner is thinking.
W – Withdrawal: Depressed, suicidal people generally do not want to be around others. The critical voice they are hearing is telling them they are no fun and no one cares about them, anyway, so why bother to continue relationships? Related to “purposelessness,” people who are contemplating suicide often give up activities they once loved, give away possessions, make plans for pets and kids to be cared for in their absence, and withdraw from the world.
A – Anger: Uncontrolled anger, especially of the revengeful type, can result in suicide. Sometimes anger leads to an accidental suicide because the person does something impulsive. Other times, anger can lead to a homicide/suicide situation.
R – Recklessness: Engaging in reckless behaviors–speeding, playing chicken with another car, deliberately crashing the car, swimming alone while under the influence, playing Russian Roulette, or engaging in other risky activities are grounds for getting professional assistance to help your partner immediately.
M – Mood changes: This one can also vary. For some people, they may have been depressed for a long time, but are suddenly happy; this is a sign that they may have decided suicide is the answer, and therefore, they feel relief because the pain will soon be over. For others, a shift from mild to severe depression or mild to severe anxiety are warning signs.
Other quick facts about suicide to keep in mind:
- 79% of completed suicides in the U.S. are by males. The word “completed” is important because women actually attempt suicide more often. Men choose more lethal means, such as firearms, versus women, who are more likely to overdose on pills.
- A 2009 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) showed that 2.3 million adult Americans made a suicide plan in the past year and that 1.1 million adults – 0.5 percent of all adult Americans – had actually attempted suicide in the past year.
- Every 15 minutes someone dies by suicide. It remains the 11th leading cause of death in this country, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
- Between 25 and 50 percent of people who kill themselves had previously attempted suicide. Those who have made suicide attempts are at higher risk for actually taking their own lives (also from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).