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Preventing Suicide

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Here are important tips for identifying behaviors and helping to stop suicide.

By Tammala Watkins, LCSW, Director, Inova Behavioral Health Access Services, Inova Health System

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34. Suicide can be prevented when people are educated about some of the common signs, symptoms and risk factors. Armed with this knowledge, you may be able to help someone struggling with thoughts of wanting to end their life and help them to get the support they need to prevent an unnecessary death.

It is vital for us to create a safe space where we can have open conversations about suicide and suicidal thoughts so that we can decrease the stigma and shame associated with reaching out for help. Often, people fear that by disclosing to someone that they are having thoughts of wanting to end their life, they will be perceived as being weak or suffering from a mental illness. This can lead the individual to feel isolated and singled out and can cause them to resist asking for the help they need.

The more we can educate ourselves about the risk factors and behaviors associated with suicide, the better we will be equipped to offer support and assistance to those individuals who are struggling with these types of thoughts. 

If an individual starts talking about wanting to die or kill themselves, they may, in fact, be asking for help and their comments should be taken seriously and not brushed off as just “attention-seeking” behavior. Other signs that an individual might be contemplating suicide include:

  • Becoming more isolated and withdrawn from friends and family
  • Giving away of possessions and things they cherish without a good reason
  • Sudden change in behaviors and habits, like eating too much or too little
  • Sleeping a lot or barely sleeping at all
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Substance use (especially if they were not previously a heavy drug or alcohol user)

All these symptoms may be indicators that the individual is severely depressed and may be thinking about suicide.

If you notice someone exhibiting these or other behaviors that are not normal for them, do not be afraid to speak up and ask if they are having thoughts of hurting themselves or wishing they were dead. Voice your concerns, be frank and give them a chance to talk about how they are feeling. By expressing your concern and discussing suicide, you will not be “planting the thought in their mind” and you may save their life. Suicide is not a normal response to stress. When someone starts having suicidal thoughts, they are in extreme distress and are in urgent need of assistance.

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1.800.273.8255, proceed to the nearest emergency room or call 911 immediately. 

Inova’s Behavioral Health Call Center can be reached between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. at 703.289.7560. Trained staff are available to schedule appointments for psychiatric evaluations, medication consultations, therapy, PHP or IOP programs. An individual may also visit our walk-in Inova Psychiatric Assessment Center (IPAC), Monday through Saturday between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. There, the patient can be assessed by one of our clinical therapists and/or psychiatrists, to determine the best treatment option available.  

Asking for help takes bravery and trust for someone struggling with suicidal thoughts. Knowing the signs and symptoms of suicide is an important step in understanding how to reach out and offer assistance to someone who may need your help. Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask if someone you know appears to be more withdrawn or has mentioned a desire to be dead. Your willingness to talk about your concerns and to ask them the important questions may just be the opportunity they are looking for to open up to someone about their feelings and can lead them to the help they need.    

Speak up, reach out — we are always here to help.


Learn more about Inova Behavioral Health Services, and find a list of locations here. If in need of inpatient or outpatient adult mental health and substance use or adolescent inpatient services, call 703.289.7560. For child and adolescent outpatient services, call 703.218.8500.

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