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Suicide Prevention Is Everyone's Business

by Maureen Pollard,

Emotional Health Editor, KBI Inspire Magazine

Maureen Pollard, MSW, RSW is a registered social worker with a private practice in Cobourg, Ontario.  Visit her online at:

World Suicide Prevention Day is acknowledged each year on September 10. This is a time to reflect on what we can do to help people choose to turn back toward life when they are in such great pain that they are considering suicide. It can be overwhelming and frightening to talk about suicide, but talking about hard things can help us face them and find ways to meet the difficult challenges in life with strength and support. A lot of people feel unprepared to prevent suicide, but there are really some very simple steps that anyone can take to help save a life.

Know the warning signs that someone is thinking about suicide. 

I = Ideation (Have they thought about suicide before? Are they thinking of it now?)

S = Substance Use (Substances that might make them impulsive and leave them feeling low.)

P = Purposelessness (Do they feel their life has meaning and they are important and useful?)

A = Anxiety (Are they feeling a lot of big worries and fears?)

T = Trapped (Do they feel there is no escape from their pain?)

H = Hopelessness (Do they believe it will never get better?)

W = Withdrawal (Have they stopped doing things they used to enjoy alone or with friends?)

A = Anger (Have they been unusually irritable and angry?

R = Recklessness (Are they taking unnecessary risks and acting like they don’t care?)

M = Mood Change (Have they had a sudden mood change for the better? This can mean they’ve made the decision to die and can be an important warning sign that’s often missed)

Don’t be afraid to ask: “Are you thinking about suicide?” You won’t give someone the idea if you ask them directly with a calm, matter-of-fact approach. If they’re not thinking about suicide, they’ll say so. If they are thinking about suicide, you have opened the door to hope by asking them this question and giving them the chance to talk openly about their thoughts and feelings.

Listen first for understanding. Really try to learn how they’re thinking without judgment. As they feel heard and understood, their pain will begin to ease. As they tell you about their situation, listen for signs of hope—something they’re looking forward to, someone who counts on them for something (like a pet), something they’re grateful for. Notice these things, and when they seem to be feeling some relief from being heard, begin to ask them a bit about these potential positives in their life.


Invite the person to turn toward hope. If they have been thinking about suicide, ask if they can agree to keep themselves safe for the next 24/36/72 hours (don’t ask them to agree to more than 72 hours—that can seem very far away to someone who is struggling. It’s best to keep these agreements for safety relatively short with a plan to check in with the support person. Help them identify things they can do to help them feel better if their pain returns and help them create a contact list of people they can call if they need help to stay safe. If they can’t agree to stay safe, consider attending an emergency room or calling 911 to seek medical support to help keep them safe and connect them with support through the medical system.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep. You are one person, doing the best that you can. This means that there are many reasons you might not be able to continue helping someone who’s thinking of suicide once you’ve started this conversation. If you agree to stay in contact and provide some support, it’s important that you do as you said you will or communicate if things have changed. If you can’t follow-up with the person for any reason, help connect them with someone they trust who can follow-up with them. 

Remember to take care of yourself, too. This can be a very emotional experience as you learn about someone’s deep pain. It can help to have your own support person to talk to. Be sure to stay hydrated, take in some nutrition, and get some sleep as you find your balance after the experience of supporting someone who is thinking about suicide.

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