Spotlight on Women's Health

Dr. Danielle Johnson

An Interview About Suicide Prevention

September 28, 2018

Content warning: Suicide

Suicide is a serious problem, and the rate of suicide among women is on the rise. People who consider suicide often feel like there is no hope, and they may often feel trapped or alone. We spoke with Dr. Danielle Johnson, Chief of Adult Psychiatry and Director of the Women’s Mental Health Program at Lindner Center of HOPE, to discuss suicide and what women should do if they’re having suicidal thoughts. She also talks about risk factors, warning signs, and how to support loved ones.

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What are some common mental health conditions that affect women?

Among women, mood disorders and anxiety disorders are definitely the most common. Mood disorders include conditions like depression and bipolar disorder. As for anxiety disorders, examples include generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and social anxiety disorder.

When should women consider getting help to manage mental health conditions?

If you’re having trouble meeting the demands of daily life, I would encourage you to seek help. How do you know if your symptoms are affecting your daily life? Consider these questions: Do you have trouble getting up? Are you getting to work late? Are you having difficulty sleeping? Are you eating enough and choosing healthy foods?

Women are used to having so many obligations that they might not want to take the time to recognize that something is going on. Sometimes, someone else has to point it out to them. But if you feel like something isn’t quite right, it’s OK to ask for help. Unfortunately, the stigma still exists, and women might think they need to just push through it. Getting treatment can help you feel better and make it easier to meet the expectations of your life. 

Do you have advice for women who feel unsure about asking for help?

Yes. Let’s recognize that a mental health issue is a health issue, just like high blood pressure or diabetes. If you had diabetes, you would get treatment. The same should apply for mental health — there are things that can be done to help you manage it.

Also, I try to get people to think about what they would say to a family member or friend. You would tell them to get help, so why not do the same for yourself?

What should women do if they’re having suicidal thoughts?

Tell someone. Talk to a friend or a family member, or share your feelings with a mental health professional. If you’re not getting mental health treatment, tell your primary care provider. Call or text a crisis hotline. People want to help you, and you can feel better.

If you’re in immediate danger, call 911 or go to an emergency room. 

I also want to point out that passive thoughts about suicide are still concerning. By passive thoughts, I mean thinking things like, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, that would be OK,” or “If I get into a car accident, that would be OK.” These thoughts are still concerning and should be taken seriously. You don’t have to feel like this. With help, you can feel better.

Are there warning signs for suicide?

Yes. Some behaviors to look for include:

  • Making plans to not be here anymore, such as talking about who would take care of the kids or who would get certain things or possessions
  • Talking about wanting to die or feeling hopeless, trapped, or like a burden to others
  • Looking for ways to commit suicide, such as searching online or stockpiling pills
  • Engaging in reckless behavior, like driving faster than is safe
  • Using alcohol or drugs more often
  • Withdrawing from activities and people, such as not returning phone calls
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
  • Acting anxious or agitated

Read about additional warning signs.

What can women do if they think someone they know is considering suicide?

There’s a misconception that if you talk to people about suicide, you’ll increase their risk of suicide, but that’s not the case. Talk to them. You can say, “I’m worried about you. What can I do to help? Are you safe?” This lets them know that they have someone who cares and is there to listen and talk.

If someone is in treatment, you can encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling with a mental health professional. If they’re not, offer to help them get help. You can make phone calls to find a health professional or places where they can get treatment, as this task can often feel overwhelming. 

If someone is in immediate danger, call 911 or take them to the emergency room.

Read about other ways you can help someone who is having suicidal thoughts.

What else besides mental health conditions can put women at risk of suicide?

Some risk factors for suicide can include history of trauma, whether it’s sexual, verbal, or emotional; misuse of drugs or alcohol; and prolonged stress or stressful situations, such as the loss of a loved one or job, financial problems, or harassment.

Read about additional risk factors for suicide.

Are there any myths about suicide that are harmful to women?

Women aren’t always taken as seriously when they express their feelings. Instead, women may be viewed as dramatic or attention-seeking. But the rate of suicide among women increased by 50% from 2000 through 2016. So, I urge you to take all mental health concerns seriously and make sure you (and the women in your life) get the help you need.

Is there a final thought you’d like to share?

Part of the reason that women are so affected by mood disorders and anxiety disorders is due to hormonal changes throughout the course of their lives, such as puberty, pregnancy, and menopause.

One in 9 new mothers has postpartum depression, a serious mental health issue that, if left untreated, can increase a woman’s risk of attempting suicide. If a woman in your life recently gave birth, make sure she’s going to her follow-up appointments and watch for any behavioral changes or warning signs.

Learn more about mental health conditions that affect women, living with a mental health condition, getting help, and suicide prevention.

If you or someone you love is thinking about hurting or killing themselves, get help now. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health.