What Is Suicide?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Suicide is an intentional self-inflicted act that ends in death. While it may seem like a suicide comes out of nowhere or that there are no warning signs, people who die by suicide often struggle with mental health issues or significant life stressors for a long time prior to their deaths.

Although anyone can be at risk of suicide, there are factors that may raise a person's risk. Learn about the suicide risk factors and signs to watch for, as well as treatment methods to help those who may be thinking about suicide.

Suicide Prevention Hotline

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, call 911 immediately or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Female suicide with medicine tablet



skaman306 / Getty Images

Suicide is a global public health issue. Despite the large number of people around the world who struggle with thoughts of suicide, a lack of access to resources and support, stigma, and a lack of available mental health professionals help contribute to suicide rates.

Many people struggle with suicidal thoughts. Globally, about 800,000 people die by suicide each year.

Risks

Some people have a genetic predisposition that puts them at increased risk of suicide. This genetic factor combined with stressors, especially financial difficulty, traumatic experiences, and mental illness, can cause significant distress and impact the natural way the body and mind typically handle stressful situations.

Though anyone can be at risk of suicide, there are some distinguishing characteristics for those who are most at risk:

  • Men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women.
  • Those with depression, substance use issues, and psychosis are more at risk.
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 20 to 40.

People who are suffering from a terminal or life-threatening illness like cancer are also at higher risk of suicide, and the rates of suicide go up as people age.

One myth about suicide is that if a person wants to die, there is no way to stop it. In fact, there are effective treatments to help people avoid suicide, and many people just need to know that there are options available and people who are willing to help them seek those sources of support.

Signs

It may not always be easy to tell when someone is thinking about suicide. Sometimes a person may isolate themselves, close off their emotions from others, or act like everything is OK when in reality they are struggling. This means that even though a person seems OK or denies being suicidal, they still could be at risk.

Sometimes someone will talk about suicide or about wanting to end their life but will do so in a way that sounds as if they are joking or not serious. Talking about suicide or death is an important sign to pay attention to, even if the person is smiling or making jokes about it.

One study found that 75% of people who die by suicide were not seeing a mental health professional when they died. This makes it important for everyone to pay attention to the signs that someone could be suicidal.

Other signs that a person may be suicidal include:

  • Excessive quietness
  • Withdrawal from loved ones
  • Avoiding physical contact or eye contact
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Strange acts that could be a way to practice for suicide

People who are suicidal might not always express their intent, sometimes because they don't know how to say it and sometimes because they feel like a burden talking about it. Any sign of suicide or concerning change in a person's behavior should be taken seriously.

Many people who are suicidal don't really want to die. Rather, they want to escape their psychological and/or physical pain and feel there are no other options.

Preventive Treatment

Those who are at immediate risk of hurting or killing themselves should be taken to the hospital right away for treatment. The best way to prevent suicide and treat someone with suicidal thoughts is to work with a licensed mental health professional. The specific treatment plan will vary depending on the person, their main concerns, and any mental health diagnoses they may have.

Along with professional treatment, there are things that can be done to keep a person with suicidal thoughts safe at home. The most common methods used for suicide are hanging, self-poisoning, and guns. Ensuring that dangerous items are locked away can help by removing a person's access to easy means.

Talking to a person who is suicidal can also be helpful. Asking questions about how the person is feeling, providing support, and offering to help lets the person know they have a safe place to discuss their thoughts and feelings. Using words like "suicide" and "death" tells the person that they can be honest about their feelings and bring up even scary and stigmatized topics. This type of supportive listening should always be provided in addition to, not as a replacement for, professional treatment.

Asking a person whether they are thinking about killing themselves will not put the idea into their head or put them further at risk. In fact, many people feel relieved to know that someone is comfortable talking with them about their suicidal thoughts.

Summary

Suicide is tragically common, with one person dying by suicide every 40 seconds around the world. Suicide may seem unpreventable, but there are risks, signs of distress, and treatment options to be aware of.

Since suicide can impact anyone, it is often the family and friends of those who are suicidal who recognize the changes in thoughts and behaviors that may indicate someone is at risk. It's also usually the loved ones of someone who is suicidal who are best able to help that person access supports.

Getting help right away is very important in preventing suicide, even when you're unsure about how immediate the risk is.

A Word From Verywell

Whether it's about yourself or someone else, suicide can be a scary thing to talk about. Struggling with your own or others' suicidal thoughts can feel very lonely, but you are not alone. There are always options, even when it feels like you've tried everything. Sometimes just telling someone what you are going through is enough to get started on a path to healing and to lift some of the burden you are experiencing.

If you are unsure where to turn for help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, talk to your doctor, or talk to a mental health professional. If you or someone else is at immediate risk, dial 911.

Was this page helpful?
5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Dreier M, Ludwig J, Härter M, et al. Development and evaluation of e-mental health interventions to reduce stigmatization of suicidality – a study protocol. BMC Psychiatry. 2019;19(1):152. doi:10.1186/s12888-019-2137-0.

  2. Bachmann S. Epidemiology of suicide and the psychiatric perspective. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2018;15(7):1425. doi:10.3390/ijerph15071425.

  3. Oquendo MA, Sullivan GM, Sudol K, et al. Toward a biosignature for suicide. AJP. 2014;171(12):1259-1277. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.14020194.

  4. Hogan MF, Grumet JG. Suicide prevention: an emerging priority for health care. Health Affairs. 2016;35(6):1084-1090. doi:10.1377/hlthaff.2015.1672.

  5. Owens C, Owen G, Belam J, et al. Recognising and responding to suicidal crisis within family and social networks: qualitative study. BMJ. 2011;343:d5801. doi:10.1136/bmj.d5801.