Written by Chloe Pearson

When our loved ones are going through a hard time, it’s sometimes difficult to start a conversation about it out of fear that we’ll make things worse or push them away. Often, we feel inclined to stay out of it, especially if there are factors at play that we don’t understand. However, there are numerous warning signs that can tell us whether a loved one is just getting over a bump in the road or if the issue is much more serious.

Each year, over 40,000 Americans die by suicide, and many more than that attempt it, leaving themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives. Not only that, suicide affects friends and family members as well, often creating a wound that won’t close. Trust is broken, worry spreads, and mood and emotional disorders bloom, not to mention substance abuse disorders which can exacerbate depression and suicidal thoughts.

Addiction is one of the leading causes of suicide; alcohol and drug abuse takes a toll on the physical properties of the brain, altering things for the worse and leading to impulsive behavior. When paired with easy access to a weapon, suicide goes from being a threat to an imminent danger.

“There’s a need for a comprehensive approach if we want to reduce suicide attempts and death by suicide. It’s not sufficient to rely simply on mental health treatment, since we know that the majority of those who die by suicide have never had any mental health treatment. To reduce suicide, everyone needs to be involved,” says Dr. Richard McKeon, a public health adviser for suicide prevention.

If substance abuse is playing a dual role with suicidal thoughts, the individual needs to act quickly to seek help for both. Often, substance abuse is brought on by a core problem, and sometimes the user can’t face it or pushes it away, choosing instead to numb themselves with drugs or alcohol. Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, stress over family issues or work, anxiety, and depression are all examples of the painful reasons some people turn to substances. Some believe alcohol will help them sleep, while others rely on drugs to help them cope enough to get through a day. Things become dire, however, when daily routines are affected and the individual can’t function. Because alcohol only heightens feelings of depression, it’s important for friends and family to understand the issues and to know the warning signs of suicidal thoughts. They include:

  • Changes in eating habits
  • Sudden weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Talking or writing about death
  • Giving away belongings
  • Risky behaviors
  • Lashing out at loved ones
  • Changes in physical appearance

If your loved one is exhibiting these behaviors, don’t wait for them to come to you; in most cases, a person who is depressed or thinking about suicide feels like they are alone, and often they feel shame or guilt over their thoughts and actions. This will keep them from opening up, so it’s important to understand how to approach them…and what not to say.

Start by letting them know you’re concerned about them and ask, straight out, if they are suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts. Many people are afraid to bring up suicide because they believe the word will put the idea into a loved one’s head, but if there are already suicidal thoughts present, hearing someone else bring it up could be jarring enough to get them to talk.

Let them know you’re there for them and refrain from making judgmental comments. This can be difficult, especially if your faith includes strong feelings about suicide, but it’s important to let your loved one know that you will listen without introducing shame. Offer to help them find a support group, therapist, or counselor or, if they are uncomfortable speaking to someone in person, consider looking for a support group online.

If you believe the threat of suicide is imminent, call 911 and stay with your loved one unless they become violent toward you. Remember that you cannot solve every issue and sometimes you need to step back and let the professionals take over.


Ms. Pearson loves volunteering for Consumer Health Labs, which aims to help consumers make healthy choices.

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