Myths about suicide

Myth 1. Those who talk about suicide are not at risk of suicide 

Fact: This is false and minimises the complexity of the motives that underpin suicide along with the comings and goings of suicidal thoughts and urges. By talking about suicide they may also be reaching out for help. People can and have been falsely reassured by this myth, at least 4 in 10 people who die by suicide have talked to someone about taking their own life in advance of doing so. The advice is simple. Irrespective of the nature of the communication, take every suicidal utterance seriously. 

Ask directly and compassionately, explore what is driving the thoughts of suicide and work together with the person to help keep them safe. 

Myth 2. All suicidal people are mentally ill 

Fact: Suicide can occur in the context of mental illness however it is worth noting that suicide can happen in the context of social disadvantage and is often preceded by a sudden loss or the experience of a stressful life event, or it may be an impulsive act; and in these cases there may be no evidence of mental illness. 

Myth 3. Suicide occurs without warning 

Fact: This is difficult as although there can be warning signs for suicide (e.g. getting one’s affairs in order) they are often difficult to spot in the heat of our everyday lives. It is about identifying when a loved one is especially vulnerable and talking to them about how they’re feeling and supporting them. 

Myth 4. Asking about suicide ‘plants’ the idea in someone’s head 

Fact: There is no evidence that asking someone whether they are suicidal plants the idea in their head. From research from Kings College London it may even have an opposite protective effect. If you are concerned about someone, ask them directly whether they have been thinking about suicide. It could help to get them the help that they need and, potentially it could save their life. 

Myth 5. Suicidal people clearly want to die 

Fact: No they do not. People who are suicidal often cycle between wanting to live and wanting to die. For some this cycle can be almost instantaneous, for others it can take hours or days. 

People who have survived a suicide attempt often report this ambivalence or desire to live as well as a desire to die. For others it can be wanting an escape from the emotional pain that they are experiencing. 

Providing support, structure and opportunities for understanding can help people manage and understand their emotions and provide a lifeline to those in need. 

Myth 6. When someone becomes suicidal they will always remain suicidal 

Fact: For most people, suicide risk is usually short-term and linked to a specific situation, often an interpersonal crisis. While suicidal thoughts may come back again for some people, the vast majority will make a full recovery, they will never attempt suicide and will not die by suicide. 

Myth 7. Suicide is inherited

Fact: The taking of one’s life is a behaviour and you cannot inherit a behaviour. However vulnerabilities for suicide can be inherited through genetics but this does not mean that suicide is inherited, rather that certain risks or vulnerabilities in regards to suicide can be inherited. 

Myth 8. Suicidal behaviour is motivated by attention-seeking 

Fact: Too often suicidal behaviour and self harm are described in pejorative terms. This is not ‘attention-seeking’ in the way that those who are being dismissive suggest. It is a marker of distress, not usually a marker of attention-seeking. 

Imagine the pain or distress that an individual must be experiencing such that they would inflict pain on themselves as a means of managing or relieving how they are feeling. Every act of self harm, irrespective of motive, needs to be taken seriously and deserves a compassionate, human response. 

Myth 9. Suicide is caused by a single factor 

Fact: Without question, suicide is not caused by a single factor. Rather, suicide results from a perfect storm of factors and these factors can be biological, psychological, clinical, social or cultural and many of them may be hidden. 

Reducing suicide to a single cause helps no one, least of all those who are most at risk of suicide or those left behind following a tragic loss. 

Myth 10. Suicide cannot be prevented 

Fact: This is complicated as at a national level, suicide can be prevented but it is very difficult to do so. It is also difficult to prevent suicide at an individual level. Despite advances in understanding risk and protective factors, the challenge for preventing suicide at the individual level remains; not only are we trying to identify who is most likely to take their own lives, but we also need to know where and when they will do so. 

Myth 11. Only people of a particular social class die by suicide

Fact: Suicide is not a respecter of social class. Anyone, irrespective of social class, could die by suicide. This myth has emerged because the rates of suicide are higher among those from more disadvantaged backgrounds compared to those who are more affluent. Suicide is a heart-breaking example of inequality and inequity, and illustrates the importance of taking a public health approach to suicide prevention. 

Myth 12. Improvement in emotional state means lessened suicide risk 

Fact: This is a tragically incorrect myth, with the inverse relationship being true. It seems that improvement in emotional state is associated with increased rather than decreased suicide risk. 

The logic is as follows: when someone is in the midst of a depressive episode (for example) and overwhelmed with pain, they often do not have the energy or motivation to formulate and enact a suicide plan. However, if they settle upon suicide as the means of ending their pain, then their emotional state may lift as they believe they have found the solution to their problems – suicide being the permanent means of ending their pain. 

The general advice is that if a vulnerable person’s mood improves inexplicably, then there is perhaps a cause for concern and further probing or support is recommended. 

Myth 13. Thinking about suicide is rare

Fact: Sadly, this is not true. In the World Mental Health Survey, between 3 and 16 per cent of adults internationally report having experienced suicidal thoughts at some stage in their lives. 

Another study in young adults, the Scottish Wellbeing Study reported that more than 20 per cent of respondents reported having suicidal thoughts at some stage in their lives. 

Myth 14. People who attempt suicide by a low-lethality means are not serious about killing themselves

Fact: This related in part to the attention-seeking myth, indicating that if someone chooses a low-lethality method they are ‘attention-seeking’. This is a myth – every suicidal act should be taken seriously; we should not infer lack of suicidal intent from the perceived lethality of a suicide attempt. 

In short, the take home message is: every suicidal act or act of self harm should be taken seriously. 


O’Connor, R.C. (2021). When it is Darkest: why people die by suicide and what we can do to prevent it. London: Vermilion, Penguin Random House UK.