Ask the Experts: John Westefeld on suicide prevention

John Westefeld

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

John Westefeld is a professor of counseling psychology in the University of Iowa College of Education who has done extensive research, teaching, publishing, and workshop presentations over 32 years related to the topic of suicide. He is currently past president of the Society of Counseling Psychology, Division 17 of the American Psychological Association, with his presidential project being suicide prevention. Westefeld’s interest in suicide is both professional and personal: a close friend completed suicide, and his aunt made multiple suicide attempts.

National Suicide Prevention Week is Sept. 5–11.

While there are sometimes warning signs if someone is contemplating committing suicide, other times there are no obvious ones/none. How can people take care of their loved ones without causing undue alarm or overreacting?

Recent statistics from the American Association of Suicidology paint a troubling picture: in one year, approximately 34,600 completed suicides occurred in the United States. That’s 95 per day. One every 15 minutes.

Why do people attempt and complete suicide? Suicidologists have long been perplexed by this question. Despite numerous warning signs related to suicide, and many theories about causal factors, suicide remains extremely difficult to predict—for both mental health professionals and the person in question. In addition, warning signs may vary greatly across individuals; in some cases, there is no warning.

Nevertheless, there are some important warning signs to be aware of. By paying attention, we can raise the odds of preventing a suicide. Key warning signs include:

  • Hopelessness, helplessness, feeling trapped
  • Depression or low self-esteem
  • A previous suicide attempt or family history of suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • High levels of stress
  • Impulsivity
  • Experiencing violence/victimization
  • Withdrawing from typical day-to-day pattern of living
  • Thoughts of suicide, having a plan for suicide, or talking about attempting suicide

If you are concerned about someone being suicidal, what should you do? First, do not be afraid to ask a question such as “Have you been feeling so badly lately that you have thought about harming yourself?” Evidence indicates that by broaching the topic it may be more likely that you will save a life than cause a death. While suicide is certainly unpredictable, the person often will value you giving them permission to talk about what is troubling them. During these conversations, you should provide hope, encourage the person to seek treatment, and monitor the person to the extent that you can.

The national suicide hotline number is 800-273-8255. The American Association of Suicidology has an outstanding web site:

To learn about on campus suicide prevention training programs, visit

It is especially important in these kinds of situations for you to consult with a mental health professional, and encourage the person whom you are concerned about to get into treatment. Suicidal people—in fact, people in general—often initially resist the idea of seeking treatment. However, it is important to supportively encourage them to seek help. With continued encouragement, many people eventually will begin treatment.

We also have learned about the importance of suicide prevention workshops in addressing this issue. When I conduct these, they are typically about 45 minutes in length, and cover warning signs, what to do if you are concerned about someone being suicidal, and a directory of resources.

With prevention workshops, a willingness to reach out, and treatment, I believe we can make progress in dealing with this profoundly difficult phenomenon.