Identifying Suicide Lethality

Do you know how to identify suicide lethality in others? It’s important to identify what causes a person to become suicidal. It’s probably easy to imagine some situations that could cause a person to become suicidal. Financial ruin, becoming the victim of a heinous crime like rape, losing your job can all cause suicidal thoughts. And yet, most people who experience these things do not go on to die by suicide.

What differentiates the people who die by suicide from the people who don’t? Their coping skills. Suicide is simply the result of someone experiencing a situation that exceeds their available coping. Every time you come up against a situation, you have a variety of potential responses. If, however, what you’re dealing with appears to be unsolvable, suicide can appear to be the only action.

Fortunately, by reaching out to a competent suicide interventionist, you can help the suicidal person connect to resources and expand their coping skills so that suicide is not their only option.

Identifying Suicide Lethality

How do you tell that someone is suicidal? While there are certain obvious warning signs (like someone who tells you that they want to die), most people are afraid to disclose that they are suicidal. They can experience feelings like feeling judged, people trying to dismiss their concerns or not knowing what to do.

Because of this, people will often give signs in their speech that hint that they’re feeling suicidal. We call these suicide lethality statement. For example,

  • I just can’t go on anymore
  • I want to fall asleep and not wake up
  • I feel like I would be better off dead

When someone says these things, it’s important to ask them whether they’re feeling suicidal. One of the hardest things for a beginning suicide interventionist to do is to overcome their own barriers and actually ask the person if they’re feeling suicidal.

Particularly if it’s a friend or a family member who is expressing suicidal thoughts, we can worry about what happens if they say yes – and that worry can prevent us from asking the question.

How to Ask about Suicide

Asking about suicide requires you to actually use the word. Sometimes people will say things like “Are you going to hurt yourself?” and receive a no in response. They might later go on to attempt suicide, and when they’re asked why they responded like they did, they say that they didn’t intend to hurt themselves, they intended to kill themselves.

You also should not ask in a negative. Saying “You’re not going to kill yourself, are you?” or “You wouldn’t commit suicide, right?” lead the person to say they’re not suicidal even when they are. You have to ask in the positive.

Finally, you should avoid use of the word “commit.” This word is a holdover from olden times when suicide was illegal and people were imprisoned for attempting. Although journalists commonly say “commit suicide” (as does the general people), suicide interventionists commonly say “die by suicide”, in the same way you die from cancer, or “suicided”, as in “that person suicided.”

So what is the correct way to ask someone about suicide?

If someone uses a suicide lethality statement, use it back in the sentence. See the following example; in all examples in this course, C is client, the suicidal person and W is the worker providing the intervention:

C: I feel like falling asleep and never waking up.

W: Sometimes when people say they want to fall asleep and never wake up, they’re talking about suicide. Are you talking about suicide?

This way you directly use the word suicide and at the same time are reflecting back without judgement. This helps the suicidal person realize that you’re okay with them feeling that way and you can open up.

Once you’ve received a “yes” answer, you can proceed on to the CPR Model of Suicide Risk Assessment and finally on to the ABC Model for Crisis Intervention.

Cite this article as: MacDonald, D.K., (2015), "Identifying Suicide Lethality," retrieved on December 9, 2022 from

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