Remember how much of a pain in the ass it was to deal with citations when writing research papers in high school or college? Or, if you somehow managed to avoid that, remember how annoying it is when you say you hears something somewhere and someone wants to know where you heard it?

Yea. It might be a pain, but there's a reason for it. Right now I have the opposite problem. There is a number that keeps popping up all over the place with "research shows" and "experts say," but there's not a source to be found anywhere. I've managed it track it back to two possible sources, but I'm not about to pay $200 to get copies of the books. So, no numbers for you today.


Most places you go to read about suicide will tell you that a large number of people give some type of indication of their plans - warning signs. Warning signs are different from risk factors but the two are often mixed together. The most commonly repeated warning signs:

  • Talking about wanting to die or having no reason to live
  • Trying to get access to means to kill themselves
  • Giving away posessions
  • Talking about feeling hopeless
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Acting recklessly/risky behaviour
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing/isolating themselves/loss of interest
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Agression/rage
  • Irritability
  • Depression

I haven't had a chance to read much of the research behind this list yet, but there's an obvious problem with it. Do you know the common signs and symptoms of depression?

  • Feeling hopeless
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawling/isolating themselves/loss of interest
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Anxiety

And some signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder?

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Agression
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Loss of interest
  • Acting recklessly/risky behaviour

And some signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder?

  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Restlessness
  • Isolating themselves (social anxiety)

Telling Them Apart

If you want to include all of the above items in a list of warning signs for suicide, then most people who attempt suicide probably do show warning signs beforehand. But, really? How is a list that broad suppose to help anyone? More than anything it seems like it would just serve to make more people feel guilty about "not seeing the signs" and thinking that "if only" then the person would still be alive.

I understand the desire to err on the side of over-identifying people who are at risk so you're less likely to miss someone, but there is a difference between professionals identifying someone at-risk and the general public identifying whether their friend or family member is in dire need of help. We risk alarm fatigue - reacting too often so that when it's really important there's no sense of urgency because "we've done this 100 times and it's always been a false alarm." Think boy who cried wolf only this time it's the village people who come running every time they hear a noise that might be the wolf rather than the boy necessarily crying wolf.

Right now, it's the best we have though. I have some thoughts on why that is, but those will have to wait until tomorrow.