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More than 40,000 Americans die by suicide each year, a rate that surprisingly outnumbers homicide. Even more startling is the 816,000 attempted suicides in the United States annually, but we are not the only country facing such challenges.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports that throughout the world a person dies every 40 seconds from suicide. It is a tragedy that spans across age, gender, and ethnicity. And with each loss of life there is a wake of family members and friends who are left to make sense of it.  These survivors of suicide wrestle daily with the regrettable choice their loved one made in a time of crisis.  If you are a survivor of suicide, Rejoice Counseling Apostolate would like to assure you that we and the entire mental health and counseling community grieve with you in this painful experience.

Based on these tragic statistics it is likely that most of us interact with people at work, in church, or in our own families who have suicidal thoughts. With the holiday season around the corner—a time that can be especially difficult for persons who already feel lonely—it is important that we remain vigilant of the signs of suicide. All people of goodwill can uphold the sanctity of life by learning to recognize and respond to signs that someone may be suicidal.

It is important to note that we should never treat suicide as if it is a legitimate escape from suffering or hardship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of” (no. 2280). Unfortunately, a devastating number of people become overwhelmed with life’s challenges and believe their suffering is too intense to bear. Having lost hope and falling deep into depression or fear, they attempt suicide.

While “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (CCC, no. 2282), it is still a tragedy that we hope to prevent altogether. Therefore, we who are called to be stewards of life should become aware of the signs for suicide and learn to accompany others in their suffering. By doing so, we will be better prepared to respond when someone is in danger of making a final exit—a most regrettable mistake.

Risk Factors and Warning Signs

Learning risk factors is an important step towards protecting the lives of others. The vast majority of people who attempt or commit suicide suffer from a mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder.

When giving reasons for attempting suicide, they most often cite feelings of guilt or hopelessness.  Alcoholism is another leading risk factor for suicide; alcoholics state social reasons for their despair, such as family trouble, legal trouble, or loss of job. If you know someone who has been struggling with depression, bipolar disorder, or alcoholism, stay on the lookout for some of the following warning signs for suicide.

Most people contemplating suicide give definite warning signs of their intentions, but unfortunately others are unaware of the significance of these signs. Some signs to look for include a preoccupation with death which may be manifested by talking about suicide directly or making comments like, “I wish I were dead” or “I just want to sleep and never wake up.” These comments should not be taken lightly.

A suicidal person may also talk about feeling hopeless or worthless. They may give the overall impression that a difficult circumstance in their life has no solution or no end in sight. Another sign is when a person makes unusual visits or phone calls to people they do not typically communicate with.

If someone has made a decision to commit suicide, then these phone calls are a way to experience closure in life by saying goodbye or making amends. Furthermore, they may begin making arrangements and getting affairs in order. This could include a sudden interest in creating a will or planning their funeral.  Since they want to be remembered after their death, they may begin giving away their personal belongings. Their favorite jewelry may be given to a friend or a family heirloom to a son.

Another warning sign, somewhat counterintuitive, is when a depressed person or alcoholic suddenly appears happier and calmer. At times, this sudden change in their mood is not an indicator of healing; quite the contrary, it is a warning sign of making a definite decision to commit suicide. They appear happier because they finally see an end to their suffering. If you recognize any of these warning signs in someone you know it is important to respond.

How to Respond

Contrary to popular belief, asking a person about suicide will not make him or her suicidal. It is okay and even beneficial to question the person you are concerned about. Talking openly and directly about suicide can actually offer a sense of relief. Take time to listen, allowing the person to express their thoughts without feeling judged. Accept the person who suffers and prayerfully “take up his suffering in such a way that it becomes [yours] also.” It will then become a “shared suffering…penetrated by the light of love” (Spe Salvi, no. 38).

When a person confides in you about their suicidal thoughts, take care not to be sworn to secrecy.  Showing support and making yourself available are important, but the threat of suicide is too much to bear for one confidant. Instead, offer hope that alternatives to suicide are available and try to seek support together. Is there another family member or colleague that you can approach together?  Is there access to counseling or other mental health resources? Does the person have a relationship with a faith community? Exploring these options can lead to a network of support and break through their walls of isolation.

If you are concerned someone may be in immediate risk of suicide then there are three questions that mental health practitioners would recommend you ask the person:

  1. Are you having suicidal thoughts?
  2. Do you have a plan for your suicide?
  3. Do you have access to the lethal means necessary to carry out that plan?

If he or she answers “yes” to these questions then take action immediately. Remove lethal means and do not leave the person alone. Tell the person you are getting help and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. This Lifeline is always available to offer support, answer questions, and give guidance in times of suicidal crises.

By knowing the warning signs of suicide and how to respond, you may save someone’s life when they are most in need.

A Note of Compassion

If you are a survivor of suicide know that there is hope and healing for you as well. You may wish to look up the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Survivors of Suicide network, which offer resources for healing and a directory of support groups.  Or if you live in Houston or San Antonio, our team of Licensed Professional Counselors and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists can help you grieve the past and build a more hopeful future.

Finally, let us join together in prayer for our deceased brothers and sisters who, in moments of extreme crisis, ended their lives all too soon. “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (CCC, no. 2283). May the Holy Spirit, the Giver of Life, guide us always.

This article was first published by Chris Stravitsch on the Truth and Charity Forum.