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How do you know your level of suicide risk?

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Mental health professionals tend to think about suicidal feelings and thoughts on a continuum or spectrum, with high risk and immediate danger on one end, and low risk and little immediate danger on the other. As a general rule, the level of danger suicidal people present to their own lives increases dramatically as they progress along the steps towards suicide. This is to say, people's risk goes up as they move from 1) thinking about suicide (e.g., suicidal ideation), to 2) planning their suicide, to 3) collecting the necessary equipment, and then finally 4) actually trying to commit suicide. The earlier in this progression they can be identified and helped, the better.

It is very difficult to accurately predict suicide risk and suicide outcomes, even your own! The best guide when trying to predict suicide is a history of past suicidal behavior. Therefore, if you have a history of past serious suicide attempts you should assume that your present day suicide crises are just as significant and serious as your past ones, if not more so.

People who go on to attempt suicide often, but not always, show some warning signs before engaging in this behavior. If you can recognize your own warning signs before you attempt suicide, you can potentially save yourself. You'd think that recognizing your own warning signs would be easy, but it isn't always the case. Warning signs for suicide can be obvious or they can be subtle. They may build up gradually or come on suddenly. There isn't always a specific "red light" thought in your head that suicide is where you're going.

You should be concerned if you notice yourself starting to think in suicidal ways. We suggest that if you start to think about suicide as a good idea, this is an indication that you could benefit from professional mental help. On the other hand, it is also true that many more people exhibit suicide warning signs than go on to actually attempt suicide. Though it is possible that your suicide warning signs may be a false alarm, you should take them seriously anyway, just in case.