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Identifying Someone at Risk for Suicide

This is the second of two columns on suicide, prepared by University Health Services in response to recent suicides on campus.

posted November 18, 1998

There are many clues pointing to someone at risk for suicide, but often friends, relatives or colleagues don't know what to take seriously, according to Esteban Sena, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at University Health Services.

"On some level -- it's almost subconscious -- people tend to deny the clues," he explains. "It is difficult to go through this; we don't want to think someone we know or care about is having these thoughts. It may be more comfortable to ignore than to do something."

If you suspect a person may be at risk, it is important not to overlook possible clues, because the person might be reaching out to you.

Examples of verbal clues can include:

  • "I wish I were dead."
  • "I'm not the person I used to be."
  • "My family would be better off without me."
  • "You won't be seeing me around anymore."

Examples of depressive symptoms can include:

  • Anhedonia (taking no pleasure from life).
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Continued irritability

Examples of behavioral clues:

  • A previous suicide attempt
  • Procuring the means for suicide (gun, sedatives, etc.)
  • Giving away valued possessions
  • Unexplained change in typical behavior (alcohol/drug use, social withdrawal)

Example of situational clues:

  • Overwhelming loss (death, divorce, etc.)
  • Major stress (e.g. rejection from a school program or loss of job)

If someone's behavior or comments concern you, the immediate course of action is to talk about it, says Sena. "Ask them if they are considering suicide. No matter how uncomfortable this makes you, it's better to talk than to remain silent. Ask them about their family situation; talk about the temporary nature of the problems, and the permanency of suicide. Ask them if they have a plan for killing themselves. If they do, that's a red flag."

Then help the person arrange for professional help, or accompany them directly. In a crisis situation, call Counseling & Psychological Services [for students; CARE Services for staff and faculty] and state the crisis, or call the police or the community crisis line.

Sena sees intervention and counseling as the best response and the best hope for preventing suicide. But not every suicide case will be prevented, even with the best attempts at intervention.

"That's why being the helper can be confusing, frustrating and frightening -- and reason to seek counseling for yourself. It's best not to try to go through something like this alone, and there is no reason, with the resources we have here on campus, that you should have to," he said.

Note: This is only a partial list of suicide clues. A comprehensive list is included in Assisting the Emotionally Distressed Student.


At University Health Services:

  • CARE Services. Assistance and counseling for faculty and staff: 643-7754.

  • Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS). Counseling and psychiatric care; social services for students: 642-9494.

  • Assisting the Emotionally Distressed Student: A Guide for Staff and Faculty. Available from CPS; contains a section on suicide (applicable to anyone at risk for suicide) Call 642-9494.

  • Grief and Loss Workshop. Feb. 18 and 25. Sponsored by CARE Services: 643-7754.

  • Sudden Death. Brown Bag Presentation. Tentative Feb 11. Sponsored by CARE Services: 643-7754.

In the community:

  • Suicide Prevention and Crisis Intervention of Alameda County. Oakland/Berkeley: 849-2212.



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