Suicide Risk: Recognizing and Responding to Risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Speak up about thoughts of suicide and feelings of hopelessness and despair
  • Recognize the warning signs of suicide
  • If suicide warning signs are present, seek help for yourself, your friend, or your family member

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some people with mental health problems may be at elevated risk for suicide. This is because the high levels of stress that many are experiencing can lead to feelings of hopelessness and despair. People who are already in treatment for suicide risk may need additional support. This includes people who are having suicidal thoughts as well as those with a recent history of suicidal thoughts or a suicide attempt. Other people may experience an exacerbation of existing or emerging mental health problems. This includes those with psychiatric disorders -- depressive and bipolar disorders, alcohol and substance use disorders, anxiety and trauma-related disorders, and psychotic disorders --- as well as individuals who struggle with aggressive or disinhibited behavior and find it difficult to manage strong negative emotions. It is important to speak up about your needs or your family member’s needs during this time, and to accept that additional help may be needed.

Warning Signs

We can all learn to recognize the warning signs of suicide. Such recognition -- combined with  expressing caring concern and assisting the person with the next step toward getting professional help -- may be lifesaving.  

If you are concerned about someone’s possible suicide risk, we recommend that you share your concern and ask the person if they are having thoughts of suicide. We also recommend that you look out for worrisome behavior changes, particularly when these follow or are related to a loss, painful or shaming experience, or change in life circumstances.

The warning signs for suicide include the following -- adapted from the list on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website (more extensive information at the links below):

Talk or Written Words about: Killing Self/Suicide, Hopelessness, No Reason to Live, Being a Burden on Others, Feeling trapped, Unbearable Pain

Behaviors: Increased use of alcohol or drugs, Withdrawal from usual activities, Searching for way to end life, Isolating from family or friends, Highly worrisome changes in behavior

Mood: Depression, Anxiety, Loss of interest, Irritability, Humiliation/Shame, Agitation/Anger, Relief/Sudden Improvement

If Warning Signs are Present, What Can You Do?

If you are currently in treatment with a mental health provider, we encourage you to let this provider know if you are experiencing hopelessness or any suicidal thoughts or impulses. Your provider will talk with you about these thoughts and feelings, validate the struggle you are experiencing, and consider with you whether or not any changes in your routines, activities, or treatment plan may be helpful. Your provider can also collaborate with you to develop a Safety Plan or Coping Plan, which is a personal guide for managing highly distressing or suicidal thoughts. Your provider may also talk with you about other resources that may be beneficial in your personal situation. 

If you are not currently in treatment with a mental health provider, we encourage you to reach out for help. Identify and contact a mental health provider immediately and, if possible, involve a partner, parent, or family member in helping you with this step. If it is urgent or an emergency, call the National Lifeline (number below), seek emergency services, call 911, or consider other emergency resources in your area.

If you are concerned for a friend or family member, share you concern with this individual, noting that you care for them. We encourage you to: a) listen to and validate the person’s emotional pain, b) ask if he or she is having thoughts of suicide, and c) stay with the person until they are linked with needed help or with another person who will assist them in getting such help.


Crisis Care Telephone and Text Services:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) - Provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24/7. The Lifeline is comprised of a national network of over 150 local crisis centers, combining custom local care and resources with national standards and best practices.

Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” or “Start” to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor.  This is a free, 24/7 confidential text message service for people in crisis.