Frequently Asked Questions about Suicide Prevention

Is it possible to predict who will attempt suicide?
There are warning signs.People who talk about suicide or say they have “no reason to live,” or those in unbearable pain—psychological or physical—should be taken seriously. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a person’s suicide risk is greatest if his or her behavior is new or has increased, especially if it is related to a painful event or loss. Withdrawal, calling people to say goodbye or increased use of alcohol or drugs are a few other such warning signs. Scientists are working to create a blood test that would offer an objective way to help predict who is at risk of attempting suicide. Foundation-funded researchers—Zachary A. Kaminsky, Ph.D., recipient of a 2010 NARSAD Young Investigator Grant; Holly C. Wilcox, Ph.D. and Jennifer L. Payne, M.D.—have recently identified a potential biomarker (biological predictor) to predict the progression from thinking about suicide to acting on such thoughts.

Are there any national efforts to address suicide prevention?
The National Alliance for Suicide Prevention was launched in 2010 as a public-private collaborative effort to champion suicide prevention as a national priority; it is led by The Honorable John M. McHugh, Secretary of the Army (public sector co-chair) and The Honorable Gordon H. Smith, President and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (private sector co-chair). In 2014, the Alliance released “A Prioritized Research Agenda for Suicide Prevention,” which outlines the research areas that show the most promise in helping to reduce the rates of suicide, and a “Suicide Research Prioritization Plan of Action” that is currently underway. The Foundation’s NARSAD Grants on suicide are included in this work and will be part of an online searchable database of all suicide-related research.

Has suicide been linked to anything beyond feelings of despair?

Yes, some abnormalities in the brain can put a person at a higher risk of attempting suicide. A leader in this research, J. John Mann, M.D., of Columbia University, a member of the Foundation’s Scientific Council and a 2008 recipient of a NARSAD Distinguished Investigator Grant, studied the brains of deceased patients who suffered major depression and died by suicide. Many of them had low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin, a message-transmitting chemical that is the target of widely used antidepressant medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac®) and paroxetine (Paxil®). Reduced levels of serotonin contribute to other brain abnormalities that can raise the risk of suicide such as a dysregulation of the stress-response system and deficits in cognitive processing, or thinking. Much other research is underway to identify the brain activity or malfunctioning that can identify who is at highest risk of attempting suicide as well as to develop the most effective intervention methods.

I’m worried that a loved one may be contemplating suicide. What should I do to help him?

First, you should know that studies show people do not start thinking about suicide just because someone asks them about it. Tell your loved one that you are worried and want to help. Be direct and non-judgmental. Don’t be afraid to ask whether they are thinking about suicide. If they have a plan to do so it could indicate that they need help right away. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention suggests a number of steps you should take:

  • Do not leave the person alone. Have them call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Remove lethal weapons and drugs.
  • Call or escort them to an emergency room, counseling service, or psychiatrist.
  • In an emergency, call 911.