In 2016, suicide was a leading cause of death in the United States—tenth overall, second for ages 10-34, and fourth for ages 35-54—and there were twice as many suicides as homicides (1). The rate of suicide increased 28% from 1999 to 2016 (2).

My patients, many of whom suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse issues, are often plagued with suicide ideation and suicide attempts. No demographic is spared. Suicide intentions are a common discussion point in my office. Just yesterday, a 12-year-old and a 19-year-old were in the throws of intense suicide ideation and we spent the sessions (along with a parent for the 12-year-old) figuring out ways for the young people to distance themselves from those life-ending considerations.

Given the tragic and heartbreaking suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain this week, I wanted to offer one of my psychiatric perspectives on suicidal thoughts, perhaps it can contribute a little to the conversation. When patients with anxiety and/or depression reveal active suicide ideas or plans, or a history of, I teach them that suicidal thoughts are their mind’s red flag, a warning that they’re completely overwhelmed and need to ask for help, not a literal edict to kill themselves. I will start the discussion with something like this, “I’m so sorry you’re having these scary suicidal thoughts. I know they seem unavoidable but let’s take a step back for a bit, ok? What if I told you the suicidal thoughts are your mind’s red flag and it’s waving it, shouting, ‘Hey! Stop! You haven’t asked for help with all the spiraling negative thoughts and feelings and now you’re completely overwhelmed! I need some relief, I need to feel in control. Please get some help, ASAP!’ What if I told you that not only are your suicidal thoughts a red flag but also your mind’s secret code, and that you and I can decipher the code and get to the real issues, which are NOT anything that involve killing yourself. Imagine if you had asthma and you were around smoke or allergens, you’d probably cough or wheeze, right? The coughing and wheezing are symptoms of the asthma when you are around an irritant. Similarly, the suicidal thoughts are a symptom of your anxiety and depression when you are overwhelmed and haven’t expressed your true thoughts and feelings to others, which we’ve been working on in therapy but takes awhile to master. It’s important that you don’t act on the suicidal thoughts, but accept that they are your mind’s tricky signal that you need to figure out what’s really going on. Let’s do that now. Tell me about…”

Depending on the age of the patient, I will make the above discussion more or less sophisticated. It is wonderful when patients have their aha moment with suicidal thoughts being a red flag, and not a word for word command.

Suicide prevention is multifaceted. Here are some basics that I hope everyone becomes familiar with:

  1. Know the sign and symptoms of someone thinking about suicide. Examples include: talking about wanting to die or kill themselves, talking about feeling hopeless or having nothing to live for, making plans or researching ways to kill themselves, talking about feeling shame, unbearable pain, or being a burden to others, using drugs or alcohol more often, acting different (more anxious, agitated, or withdrawn), more intense mood swings, giving away possessions, or saying goodbye.

  2. Know the risk factors. Common ones include: depression, other mental disorders or substance abuse disorders, some medical conditions, chronic pain, a prior suicide attempt, family history of a mental disorder, substance abuse, or suicide, family violence and/or abuse, having guns in the home, or being exposed to others’ suicidal behavior (like a family member, friend, or celebrity).

  3. Have an action plan.

    • Ask them if they are thinking about killing themselves. Don’t worry, asking directly “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” doesn’t make them do it.

    • If the suicidal person has a plan, try to get them away from lethal items or places.

    • Listen and talk to the person. This will not increase suicidal thoughts, but rather the opposite.

    • Connect them.

      1. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

      2. Family member or friend

      3. Mental health professional

    • Keep in touch with them if possible.

1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WISQARS Leading Causes of Death Reports

2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Fatal Injury Data Visualization