Suicide Prevention: How to Help Someone with Suicidal Thoughts

Rear view image of mature adult with short hair making phone call in empty living roomWhen it was revealed that actor/comedian Robin Williams took his own life in early August 2014, millions of people were in shock. For Williams’ family, friends, and fans alike, the news was devastating, but perhaps one of the most startling realizations about the incident—despite Williams regularly appearing in front of people worldwide for nearly four decades—was that no one saw it coming.

The subject of suicide is often portrayed as taboo, making it an extremely difficult topic for many to discuss. But people of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and physical capabilities are at risk for suicide. Suicide affects both the strong and the weak. It can touch anyone.

As family members, friends, and confidants, we have a responsibility to assist the people we care about. September is recognized as National Suicide Prevention Month, which presents an opportunity to learn as much as we can about this sensitive, yet urgent, issue. How can we discern if someone we love is having suicidal thoughts, and how can we take preventative action?

Where Do Suicidal Thoughts Come From?

For people who have never seriously contemplated ending their own lives, it is challenging to understand the mind-set of an individual with suicidal ideation. As the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, understanding where suicidal thoughts come from is necessary if we want to help individuals contemplating suicide.

Dr. Kelly Baez, a therapist who worked for several years as a crisis intervention counselor for suicidal and homicidal children and adolescents, explains, “[Suicidal ideation] is the ultimate in lack of perception, gratitude, and hope. Someone who is suicidal has developed a sort of tunnel vision—it is impossible for them to imagine that their life could ever improve.”

People who are suicidal often do not know how to obtain help. While prolonged suffering is typical in suicide-related cases, it is important to remember that suicidal persons are not always merely trying to escape pain. Most genuinely believe that there is no good reason to continue living and that the world will be a better place without them.

Identifying Common Risk Factors for Suicide

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), 90% of people who die by suicide are experiencing a mental health issue at the time of their deaths. Depression is one of the most common factors attached to suicidal ideation, but people who experience bipolar tendencies or other mood-altering conditions are also at higher risk. Psychosis, excessive alcohol consumption, and the use of mind-altering drugs are other factors which can increase impulsivity and heighten the risk of suicide.

The highest rates of suicide occur among adults between the ages of 45 and 64, followed closely by adults 85 and older. Children, too, can become suicidal; one in 65,000 children ages 10-14 dies by suicide each year in the U.S. Issues such as the death of a parent, divorce, bullying, sexual abuse, or social exclusion can increase the likelihood of suicide among preteens. The main concern in these cases is that parents and teachers often believe that young children will not attempt suicide.

Regarding the possibility of pre-adolescent suicide, Baez said, “I have seen children as young as six who attempt suicide—usually in an ineffective way at that age. However, the intent is there, and that’s what matters. That’s what we have to address.”

The Importance of Therapy in Suicide Prevention

Therapy is one of the best tools for suicide prevention. Mental health professionals usually approach the situation in one of two ways: by targeting the conditions underlying a person’s suicidal thoughts (depression, for example), or by targeting a person’s suicidal ideations directly.

Two prominent types of therapy for suicide prevention are dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Dialectical behavior therapy helps individuals make lifestyle changes that minimize suicidal thoughts and helps people maintain control over emotions. Cognitive behavioral therapy, meanwhile, teaches suicide prevention skills and encourages the application of learned skills even if the individual is in an activated state of suicidal ideation.

Suicide Prevention Strategies You Can Use

If a family member or friend expresses suicidal thoughts, do not ignore them. They might desperately need your help. Here are a few tactful steps you can take to help a loved one at risk for suicide:

  • Ask questions in a mild and sincere manner.
  • Explain why you are asking questions.
  • Express that your loved one is not alone. Tell them you are there for them and will continue to be there.
  • If the individual is not comfortable speaking with you, suggest a qualified third party such as a therapist, spiritual leader, or doctor.
  • Do not passively tell the person to just call a hotline; lead the person to helpful resources such as suicide hotlines and local mental health associations.
  • Help the person schedule and keep appointments with a mental health professional, even if the individual no longer feels suicidal.

With National Suicide Prevention Month in full swing, take full advantage of the many articles, seminars, webinars, and other programs on suicide prevention. Suicide can affect anyone, and being prepared can help save lives.

Where You Can Find Help

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, the suicide prevention hotline in the United States is 1-800-273-TALK. If you are outside the United States, visit or to get a helpline within your local area. also has a page dedicated to help those in crisis.  Other online resources include:

Working with a therapist or counselor allows a suicidal person confront and cope with intense emotional pain. Therapy is a leading suicide prevention method. You can find a therapist near you by searching online at or calling us at 1-888-563-2112 ext. 1 during business hours.


  1. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (n.d.). Treatment. Retrieved from
  2. Brent, D. A., Kuramoto, S. J., Langstrom, N., Lichtenstein, P., Runeson, B. and Wilcox, H. C. (2010). Psychiatric morbidity, violent crime, and suicide among children and adolescents exposed to parental death. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 49(5), 514-523.
  3. Pope, J. and Axelson, D. A. (2013, May 3). Warningsigns of suicide in teens and children. Retrieved from
  4. Price, M. (2010). Suicide among pre-adolescents. Monitor on Psychology, 41(10), 52. Retrieved from
  5. Sher, L. (2004). Preventing suicide. QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, 97 (10): 677-680. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hch106. Retrieved from

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  • Evey

    September 24th, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    My suggestion is that this isn’t anything that you will wnat to tyr to do on your own if you are at all uncomfortable with talking about the subject.
    If you are indeed offering to be there to talk to them then you have to follow through and be there to talk to them. Don’t pretend to be interested and then decide that this isn’t something that you can deal with.
    They need your help, discomfort or not, and you at least owe it to them to support them and to help them find that help that you know that they need.
    This is an issue that is much to serious to ignore or to fool around with.

  • floyd

    September 25th, 2014 at 7:46 AM

    talk them through it, get them some help don’t ignore the signs when you know that there is something wrong

  • Kim

    September 25th, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    And then what do you do when they shut down and won’t share anything with you?

    You may know that there is definitely something that is wrong, but they have to be willing to share some of that with you before you can intervene and het help for them. I don’t know how to get past those walls that peoople can put up, how I am supposed to try to get through some of that.

  • Jaynice

    September 29th, 2014 at 4:21 PM

    I used to suffer deeply from depression, and brutalily tried to kill myself once also…
    I had no-one i could trust around me, but i came out the other side, i used no medicine and did not go to a doctor.

    I have some advice that i use to help others.

    The 1st thing i do after developing a rapport in conversation, is disclose something about me that i am ashamed of, this generates trust. I also speak about how i got through it, this generates confidence, i keep my conversation authentic and this generates a feeling in them that i am “real”. Then when they begin talking i do nothing but listen and maybe touch their hand,, and when they have finished their story, we can open the conversation up into ways to look at life and this generates healing <3

  • tyrone

    September 26th, 2014 at 5:26 AM

    No matter how intelligent that I think that I may be I do enough to know that this would be a scenario where I would need extra help.
    So this would definitely mean that I would use the internet, use online services, a hotline, whatever to make sure that I was doing and saying the right things to get this person some help.
    I think that there are probably times when we would say something that for us was well menaing but it would be very negative to this person who is experiencing suicidal thoughts.
    The idea of me being the reason why they would then see no hope and give it all up would be just too tragic.

  • Tucker

    September 27th, 2014 at 8:25 AM

    I will be honest when I say that I have experienced depression and even though I feel better now I always knew the people I could talk to and those who wanted to have nothing to do with the subject. Those who were the most comfortable with letting me talk exuded that air about them that I could tell them anything and that they were ok with that. Others, while I think that they were probably well meaning, really did not know how to handle the conversation going in that direction and they would always try to get me to talk about something else. There were a select few that I knew I could count on to get me through those darkest times and then those who I still count as friends but to whom I never really could share my deepest thoughts and feelings.

  • lisa

    September 29th, 2014 at 11:54 AM

    So glad to read that you had people to talk to and listened actually listened.. All the best x

  • Bev

    September 29th, 2014 at 3:18 PM

    I lost my father to suicide and I regret every single day that I was not able to do more to help him.
    I logically know that I could not have stopped him short of locking him away somewhere, this was something that he had decided that he was going to do long before he did it. But I am afraid that there were conversations that we could have had that could have made a difference to him.
    I try not to beat myself up about it too much but there are still days when it is really hard knowing that I won’t be able to talk to him again.

  • Julius

    May 9th, 2018 at 4:15 AM

    I know exactly how you feel. My father did the exact same thing and I felt the exact same way, but the truth is we couldn’t make a difference because once those sufferers are in that position there is nothing anyone can do for them. It’s a very dark place and they won’t see the light, no matter what we do…or tell them. We can give them the info and help, but at the end of the day it’s up to them to help themselves….

  • Frank

    September 8th, 2016 at 10:48 AM

    What helped me was giving myself some time to at least try to make thing better for myself after a failed attempt. It was a postponement proposal and it really helped get me out of the mindset of feeling powerless until I could address the underlying issues that accompanied my self destructive tendencies.

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