Assessing Level of Risk for Suicide

Instructor: Della McGuire

Della has been teaching secondary and adult education for over 20 years. She holds a BS in Sociology, MEd in Reading, and is ABD on the MComm in Storytelling.

In this lesson, we will discuss the levels of risk for suicide and what each means. Also, we will discuss how to know when the level is severe (plan, means, timeline, intention).

Assessing Suicide Risk

So you have found out that a loved one is struggling with suicidal ideation. They have trusted you enough to disclose their troubling thoughts about wanting to die. What can you do to help? You know that listening and allowing a safe space to talk without judgment are critical, but it will help to know how to have a conversation that can help your friend feel better while also assessing the risk of death.

There are several indicators of whether someone is at a low, medium, high or severe risk of completing suicide, based on if there is a plan, the means, a rigid timeline, and stated intentions.

  • Someone at low risk is not likely to be in extreme danger of death by suicide. They might have occasional thoughts of suicide, but no plan, means or intentions. They may have those in place, but the timeline might not be pressing. For example, someone who says they would rather die than be terminally and painfully ill might have a low suicide risk until they get sick.
  • In someone with medium risk of suicide, there may be some thoughts, but only a loosely formed or unrealistic plan. For example, someone who says they think about killing themselves by walking out into the ocean, but they live in the Midwest is not likely to be high risk.
  • Someone who is at high risk of suicide may have the means and the plan, but have stated that they won't kill themselves. Often, just by asking someone to avoid acting on suicidal thoughts and try talking to a professional can encourage them to hang on longer. The risk is high because keeping these feelings at bay is unlikely without professional intervention.
  • When someone is at a severe risk of suicide, they need intervention right away. They have a clear plan, the means to execute the plan, a specific deadline or occasion when they want to do it and they clearly state their intentions to die. If this is the case, it is critical to remove access to any lethal means available and make sure they have a resource they can reach out to for professional help.

Someone with suicidal thoughts already feels bad enough without adding to their guilt, so listen without judgment to assess for risk
image of suicidal thoughts


Asking if someone has a plan is an easy way to show your friend that you are concerned about them while gathering information on their risk level.

Imagine Fred and Ginger both claim they are going on vacation. Fred has booked tickets and a hotel. His bags are packed and his pets are kenneled. Ginger says she is going on vacation someday, maybe if she can get time off that isn't already promised to others. Fred is clearly more likely to actually take a vacation and by this analogy, someone with a plan to complete suicide is much more likely to actually do so.


Often while learning about the plan, you can also learn what their intended means are. Asking how they want to die is an easy way to show your friend that you are concerned about them while gathering information on their risk level.

Some methods for suicide are deadlier than others and whether they have access to those means can indicate risk. For example, someone who knows that death by gunshot is more reliable than overdose may not have access to a gun. Alternatively, someone who has been stockpiling sleeping pills and who states their planned means is by overdose is likely to be high risk. If the only pills they have are not deadly, this reduces the risk.

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