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How to Identify and Talk About Suicidal Tendencies

Clinical psychologist Mary Meagher discusses important information about suicide awareness and prevention including how we can help those struggling with suicidal thoughts and tendencies.

By Mia Mercer ‘23

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 48,500 Americans commit suicide every year. Through the use of educational resources and suicide awareness and prevention programs, we can help reduce the number of suicides. 

As the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States for all ages and the second leading cause of death for youth, suicide is a serious public health problem with lasting effects on the community. Clinical psychologist Mary Meagher from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences said spreading awareness and knowing the warning signs to look for is the first step to preventing suicide. 

“Each of us can play a role in protecting our family, friends and colleagues from suicide,” Meagher said. “Friends, family and colleagues are often the first to notice signs, but they may have a hard time talking about suicide because they don’t know how to have the conversation.”

According to Meagher, suicide prevention programs such as “Take 5 to Save Lives” play an important role by raising awareness about the warning signs of suicide and how to help.

“These programs not only raise awareness of risk factors and resources, they can teach you how to help someone struggling with suicidal thoughts,” Meagher explained. “We need to educate the public about how to have open conversations to promote safety, support, and to provide people with the resources they need to get help.”

Although the media an important role in communicating information about suicide, Meagher said it’s important to also share how to prevent it.

“When media messages focus on the facts alone (e.g., the prevalence and warning signs of suicide) after telling the story of a tragic suicide death, people may empathize but they do not know what they can do to help unless the media message provides guidance on what to do and how to do it,” Meagher said. “For example, learning that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10- to 34-year-olds in the U.S. and that the suicide rate has increased over 35% since 1999 may help some of us wake up to the magnitude of the problem.”

Meagher said while some might gain awareness from these facts and be motivated to learn more, others may be overwhelmed and avoid learning more. 

 “It is important to provide guidance on how to support someone in emotional pain and to support help-seeking, hope and resilience,” Meagher informed. “The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s materials discuss how to change the public conversation in this way by using evidence-based practices that have been shown to reduce stigma while promoting hope and help-seeking.”

Although suicide is a complex problem that stems from several different factors related to one’s environment, employment, and relationships, Meagher said that suicide is often preventable so long as you know the warning signs and how to help. To help identify signs of suicide, Take 5 to Save Lives generated a list of warning signs of suicidal that takes just a few minutes to learn. 

“Emergency warning signs for those at risk of suicide include someone: a) threatening to hurt or kill themselves or talking of wanting to die; b) looking for ways to kill themselves by seeking access to weapons or other lethal items; c) talking or writing about death, dying or suicide. If someone shows these emergency signs, call 911. Other warning signs include a) rage, uncontrolled anger, seeking revenge; b) acting reckless or engaging in risky activities, seemingly without thinking; c) feeling trapped, like there’s no way out; d) increased alcohol or drug use; e) withdrawing from friends, family and society; f) anxiety, agitation, unable to sleep or sleeping all the time; g) dramatic mood changes. If someone exhibits one or more of these warning signs, Take 5 to Save Lives recommends contacting a mental health professional or hotline. Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) (Military Vets press 1. Spanish speakers press 2, and the Trevor Project focuses on LGBT Youth (USA): 1-866-4-U-Trevor.” 

When having conversations with someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts and urges, Meagher said it is important to be fully present. 

Turn off your phone and other media to devote your full attention to that person,” Meagher said. “Listen deeply to what they are thinking and feeling. Ask directly whether they are thinking about suicide. Research shows that this will not make it more likely that they will attempt suicide. Talk openly and compassionately about their thoughts and feelings. Be patient and kind. It is important for the tone of the conversation to be empathic and non-judgmental, and to avoid arguing with them or being dismissive or invalidating of their experience. Offer to support them and support their help-seeking. See the “Take 5 to Save Lives – Know How to Help” to learn more about how to help someone struggling with suicidal thoughts, which also contains a list of resources that can be contacted 24/7.”  

No one person can prevent suicide on their own. Instead, suicide prevention and awareness is an issue that needs to be addressed and tackled by everyone. 

How we talk about suicide is key,” Meagher said. “It is important to communicate in a way that supports safety, help-seeking, hope, and healing. By talking openly and compassionately about suicide, we can reduce the stigma, fear and shame that often prevent people from seeking help.”



To connect those who may be struggling with suicide and suicidal tendencies as well as those who wish to offer support to those suffering, Meagher generated a list of suicide prevention and awareness resources.

1) The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – call 800-273-TALK (8255) or text HELLO to 741741 immediately

2) Take 5 to Save Lives

3) The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention 

4) The Veterans Crisis Line connects Service members and Veterans in crisis, as well as their family members and friends, with qualified Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) responders through a confidential toll-free hotline, online chat, or text messaging service. Dial 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1 to talk to someone or send a text message to 838255 to connect with a VA responder.  You can also start a confidential online chat session at Veterans Crisis Chat.

5) International Association for Suicide Prevention – for information on World Suicide prevention Day 2021

6) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

7) National Institutes of Health