Know the Signs: How To Tell if Someone Might Be Suicidal

When it comes to preventing suicide, knowledge is our most effective tool. By learning about suicidal ideation and the common warning signs of suicide, we can provide support to those who need it most.

What Is Suicidal Ideation?

According to the CDC there is an estimated 12.3 million adults in the US who have seriously thought about suicide (CDC, 2021). Suicidal ideation refers to thoughts, fantasies, or ideas related to ending one’s life. It ranges from fleeting thoughts to detailed plans. While not everyone who experiences suicidal ideation will attempt suicide, it is a risk factor and should always be taken seriously. The two most common categories of suicidal ideation are passive and active.

Passive Suicidal Ideation

This type of suicidal ideation involves thoughts about dying or a desire to die, without a specific plan for carrying out suicide. However, it is a clear sign that an individual is experiencing significant emotional distress and may be struggling with mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety. If left unaddressed, these underlying issues can escalate, turning passive ideation into active ideation over time.

Moreover, passive suicidal ideation can reduce a person’s overall wellbeing, making them less likely to take care of themselves or seek help. They might engage in risky behaviors, neglect their health, or put themselves in dangerous situations indirectly leading to non-suicidal self injury or death.

Active Suicidal Ideation

Active suicidal ideation involves not only thoughts or desires about death, but also planning or intention to end one’s life. This form of ideation represents a higher level of risk because the individual has moved beyond thinking about death to planning or even preparing for it.

Individuals with active suicidal ideation may begin to act on these thoughts, making arrangements for their death, such as writing a will, giving away personal belongings, or acquiring means to end their life. These actions are cause for concern and  you can watch out to determine whether someone is in a life-threatening crisis. Understanding suicidal ideation and being able to recognize these and other signs of suicide will help you be able to provide crucial help.

Signs of Suicide

Here are some of the most common suicide warning signs. Please note that these may vary among individuals, and that any significant behavioral change can be cause for concern. Signs of suicidality include:

  • Discussing death or suicide: Frequently talking about death, dying, or suicide can indicate suicidal thoughts. This warning sign can take many forms, and it is essential to pay attention to the context, frequency, and intensity of these conversations. Some ways this might manifest is through explicit statements, vague or indirect comments, exploring themes of death in art or writing, and discussing final arrangements.
  • Feelings of hopelessness: Feelings of hopelessness are a major warning sign of potential suicide risk. Such feelings can take many forms and are often associated with a sense of despair, futility, or a belief that things will never get better. When a person experiences chronic or acute feelings of hopelessness, they may perceive their problems as insurmountable, feel trapped in their emotional pain, or believe they’re a burden to others. These feelings can often overwhelm their ability to cope, leading them to view suicide as the only way to escape their emotional distress.
  • Changes in behavior: These changes might involve a person’s daily routines, social interactions, habits, or overall demeanor. Because everyone’s behavior can vary over time, it is crucial to look for significant changes that seem out of character or that persist over time. Dramatic mood swings, changes in sleeping patterns, or social withdrawal may indicate potential risks. Even what seems like a sudden improvement may be a danger sign, as some people planning to commit suicide may appear happier or more at peace in the days or weeks before an attempt.
  • Self-isolation: When a person starts withdrawing from friends, family, or activities they once loved, it may be in need of support and safety. Self-isolation can also lead to increased feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and despair, all of which can contribute to suicidal ideation. Moreover, by withdrawing from their social connections, the person may feel further detached and believe that their absence will not impact others, reinforcing suicidal thoughts.
  • Making plans: If someone begins giving away personal belongings or making arrangements for when they are gone, this can signal active suicidal ideation. Other actions might include researching suicide methods, acquiring means to die by suicide, or scouting locations.

These expressions are cries for help, and it is essential that they are taken seriously. If someone you know starts displaying these signs, it is important to approach them with empathy, ask about their feelings regarding suicide, and encourage them to speak with a mental health professional. Never dismiss these signs as mere attention-seeking or exaggeration. Passive or active suicide can be an isolating experience to be taken seriously. By approaching suicide with empathy, care, and concern you are showing them that you are trustworthy and a part of their support system.

About The American Association of Suicidology (AAS)

The American Association of Suicidology is the world’s largest and nation’s oldest membership-based suicide prevention organization. Founded in 1968 by Edwin S. Shneidman, PhD, AAS promotes the research of suicide and its prevention, public awareness programs, public education and training for professionals and volunteers. The membership of AAS includes mental health and public health professionals, researchers, suicide prevention and crisis intervention centers, school districts, crisis center professionals, survivors of suicide loss, attempt survivors, and a variety of laypersons who have an interest in suicide prevention. Learn more about AAS at

Responsible reporting on suicide, including stories of hope and resilience, can prevent more suicides and open the door for help for those in need. Visit the Media as Partners in Suicide Prevention: Suicide Reporting Recommendations for more details. For additional information, visit and Stanford University’s Media and Mental Health Initiative. For crisis services anywhere in the world, please visit and in the continental United States chat, text or call 988.

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