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Recognising suicide warning signs

Someone who is thinking about suicide will usually give some clues or signs to those around them that show they are troubled. Suicide prevention starts with recognising these warning signs and treating them seriously. 

The following is a list of signs that people might give when they are feeling distraught and overwhelmed, in order to communicate their distress to others. These physical changes and behaviours are indicators that a person might be thinking about suicide. Some of these signs are stronger indicators that a person may be contemplating suicide - these indicators have been bolded. It is likely that a suicidal person will display a combination of these signs rather than one single sign.

Physical changes

  • Major changes to sleeping patterns – too much or too little 
  • Loss of energy 
  • Loss of interest in personal hygiene or appearance
  • Loss of interest in sex 
  • Sudden and extreme changes in eating habits – either loss of appetite or increase in appetite 
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Increase in minor illnesses 

Behaviours

  • Alcohol or drug misuse 
  • Fighting and/or breaking the law 
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Quitting activities that were previously important 
  • Prior suicidal behaviour 
  • Self-harming 
  • Putting affairs in order e.g. giving away possessions, especially those that have special significance for the person 
  • Writing a suicide note or goodbye letters to people
  • Uncharacteristic risk-taking or recklessness (e.g. driving recklessly)
  • Unexplained crying 
  • Emotional outbursts

Conversational signs

  • No future – "What's the point? Things are never going to get any better"
  • Guilt – "It's all my fault, I'm to blame"
  • Escape – "I can't take this anymore"
  • Alone – "I'm on my own … no-one cares about me"
  • Damaged – "I've been irreparably damaged… I'll never be the same again
  • Helpless – "Nothing I do makes a bit of difference, it's beyond my control"
  • Talking about suicide or death 
  • Planning for suicide

Feelings

  • Sadness 
  • Anger 
  • Shame 
  • Desperation
  • Disconnection 
  • Hopelessness 
  • Worthlessness 
  • Powerlessness 
  • Loneliness 
  • Isolation

Responding to warning signs of suicide

Speak up if you are worried

Talking to a friend or family member about their suicidal thoughts and feelings can be extremely difficult. But if you're unsure whether someone is suicidal, the best way to find out is to ask. 

You might be worried that you might 'put the idea of suicide into the person's head' if you ask about suicide. You can't make a person suicidal by showing your concern. In fact, giving a suicidal person the opportunity to express his or her feelings can give relief from isolation and pent-up negative feelings, and may reduce the risk of a suicide attempt. 

How to start a conversation about suicide:

  • I am worried about you because you haven’t seemed yourself lately.
  • I have noticed that you have been doing (state behaviour), is everything ok?

Questions you can ask

  • What can I do to help you?
  • What supports have you called on so far?

What you can say that helps

  • I want to help you and I am here for your when you want to talk.

Assess the risk

If someone you know tells you that he or she is thinking about suicide, it is vital to evaluate the risk. People who are at the highest risk in the immediate future have the intention to end their life, a specific plan, the means to carry out the plan and a timeframe.

Go through the following questions with the person

  1. Do you intend to take your life? (INTENTION)
  2. Do you have a plan to take your life? (PLAN)
  3. Do you have access to the means to carry the plan out? (pills, gun, etc) (MEANS)
  4. Do you have a timeframe for taking your life? (TIMEFRAME)

If they are at high risk of suicide, seek immediate help by calling 000 (police, ambulance), or with their permission take the person to the emergency department of the nearest hospital. 

Know where to go for support

Find out what services are available. This should include local emergency services, community health services and hospitals. Keep a list of contact details and times when the services are available.

This information is available as a downloadable PDF

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