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Know the Surprising Signs of Suicide

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
suicidehotlineActing hopeless and depressed, giving valuable items away, withdrawing from family and friends – we know to watch out for these established signs in people at risk for committing suicide. But often, the signs aren’t so clear cut; so on World Suicide Prevention Day, let's examine what else to look for.
“Sometimes there are no signs to indicate suicide, and the individuals themselves are not aware they are at risk for suicide,” says senior psychologist Chris Fowler, PhD, associate director of Clinical Research at The Menninger Clinic. “Suicide can be an impulsive act. It is not always premeditated.”
Predicting suicide is extremely difficult, Fowler adds. Someone who seems perfectly fine one moment, or holding steady (think Robin Williams), may commit suicide just a few hours later. What’s going on? Fowler says stressful life events – such as a career failure or relationship breakup – often trigger suicide attempts in vulnerable people, who may have a history of mental illness and tendency toward impulsivity.

What else to look for

Research is shedding new light on why people decide to kill themselves. Fowler shares some of the more surprising signs of suicide risk.
  • Sudden feelings of happiness and calm. “When a person comes out of a deep depression with an inexplicable sense of happiness, it is not always a cause for joy,” Fowler says. “That person may have made a decision to commit suicide, and no longer feel in conflict."
  • Admission or discharge from psychiatric hospitalization. “Hospitalization is a very stressful life event for individuals,” Fowler says. “Patients are separated from their family and friends. After discharge they confront many of the original problems that led them to consider suicide. It is extremely important for patients to receive quality care, during and after hospitalization, to help them through these transitions.”
  • Working a desk job. While most people would guess police officers to be at the highest risk for suicide because of the violent nature of their jobs, white-collar professionals and health care professionals actually top the list.
  • Biological vulnerability. Fowler and his colleagues with the McNair Initiative for Neuroscience Discovery-Menninger & Baylor College of Medicine (MIND-MB) are investigating potential biological risk factors for suicide, including genetic and neurological markers that might help predict the risk of suicide.
“The hope is that someday, we will develop an algorithm that will help give us a sense of vulnerability to suicide,” Fowler says of this research. Until then, the best hope for preventing suicide is to do our best to recognize the signs and risk factors, and help our loved ones find help.

How to help

A concerned conversation is an important first step. Fowler advises asking generally, “What’s wrong?” instead of immediately bringing up suicide. While asking someone if they are thinking about suicide won’t cause them to act on the idea, many people won’t immediately admit to considering suicide, and talking about it too early can shut down the conversation.
But don’t hesitate to seek help if your instincts tell you something is wrong, Fowler says.
“If you walk away from your conversation and feel uneasy about your friend or loved one’s safety, and he or she is not willing to seek out help, call a suicide hotline, or give him or her hotline information,” Fowler says. “And if a suicide attempt appears to be imminent, always call 911."