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What to Know About Suicidal Gestures

May 7, 2023

5 min.

Also called parasuicide, suicidal gestures are non-fatal self-injuries intended to communicate distress. Here’s what to know about helping yourself and others.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

This post discusses suicidal gestures and other types of self-injury. If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health emergency or suicidal thoughts, please call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

Research shows that suicidal gestures are common among youth but are sometimes used as a way to communicate distress to others rather than to end their life. Below, we discuss the difference between a suicidal gesture and a suicide attempt, as well as how to help yourself or a loved one through distressing moments. 

What is a suicidal gesture?

Also known as parasuicide, a suicide gesture is defined as “self-injury in which there is no intent to die, but instead an intent to give the appearance of a suicide attempt in order to communicate with others.” 

When a person does an intentionally non-fatal suicidal gesture, such as self-mutilation, it’s often to alert others about their mental health distress. Examples of suicidal gestures include non-lethal overdoses and cutting that’s not deep enough to cause serious blood loss. Risky behaviors such as speeding and drug abuse are also considered to be parasuicidal actions.

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Suicidal gestures, self-harm, and suicidal ideation 

Self-harm is when a person deliberately harms themself through practices such as hitting, burning, cutting, and head banging. Most youth who self-harm hide their marks or scars from other people in order to protect their secret, but some leave their wounds visible as a cry for help. This latter category of self-harm is considered suicidal gestures. Suicidal gestures are acts of self-injury intended to communicate distress or unhappiness.

Suicidal ideation is when a person is thinking about taking their own life. There are two types of suicidal ideation: passive suicidal ideation and active suicidal ideation. Passive suicidal ideation occurs when a person is experiencing ideation, meaning they’re only thinking about suicide. Active suicidal ideation is when a person has ideation, as well as the intent, plan, and possibly even the means to carry it out.

Suicide risk factors

Although the intent behind a person’s suicidal gesture is not usually to take their own life, parasuicide is still considered to be a risk factor for suicide. Research shows that 70% of teens who self-harm (including self-harm that’s not parasuicidal) have attempted suicide at least once, and 55% have attempted suicide more than once.

In addition to parasuicide, common risk factors for suicide include:

  • History of suicide ideation and thoughts
  • Family history of suicide
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
  • Struggling at school or having a learning disability
  • Being a victim of bullying, microaggressions, or discrimination
  • Being part of the LGBTQIA+ youth community 
  • History of abuse, loss of a loved one, or another traumatic experience
  • Having friends who self-harm

Self-harm has also been linked to other mental health conditions, including:

A young man sits alone in his bedroom crying because he is struggling with suicidal ideation

How to support someone who is showing suicidal gestures

If someone in your life is displaying suicidal gestures or suicidal intent, there are ways to address their pain and help them get the support they need

Make an effort to understand their feelings

Individuals who are struggling with their mental health may use suicidal gestures to let other people know that something is bothering them. If you’re not exactly sure how to react or respond, you can start with some open-ended questions to better understand the root of their pain.

For example: 

  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What can I do to support you?
  • I’ve noticed that you seem upset or bothered. Can you share what’s troubling you? 

Avoid judgmental language

In addition to asking the right questions to help your loved one feel seen and understood, it’s important to offer them a judgment-free space to talk about their feelings. 

Examples of supportive and validating statements include:

  • I’m here for you, and I care about you.
  • It seems like you’re in pain. You don’t have to go through this alone.
  • I’d be happy to come with you to speak to a mental health professional. 
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Suggest healthy coping mechanisms 

Suicidal gestures are an unhealthy response to stress, challenging situations, and difficult emotions. If your friend or loved one is looking for help managing their troubles, help them find adaptive coping strategies that promote emotional well-being, resilience, and personal growth. 

A few examples of healthy coping mechanisms include mindfulness, meditation, and exercise. You can also help your loved one make their day-to-day more manageable with better problem-solving and time-management skills.

Consider talk therapy

Whether it was a suicidal gesture or suicide attempt, it’s important to understand the feelings and emotions behind those actions. Intensive outpatient therapy is an effective way to help people understand their triggers and explore healthy coping mechanisms. In addition to one-on-one support, outpatient programs offer group therapy so people can connect with a community about their shared experiences.

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How to handle a mental health emergency

Empower yourself and your loved ones to handle whatever comes your way by creating a crisis toolkit. A crisis toolkit is designed to help teens, young adults, and their families navigate mental health emergencies together. The better prepared you are to handle a mental health emergency, the easier it will be to remain calm and take action in a moment of crisis.

Here are a few examples of questions:

  • What are your triggers?
  • What are you thinking and feeling when you’re triggered?
  • Is there anything that helps you feel better in the moments of distress?
  • What can you do or focus on instead of the suicidal gestures?
  • Is there anyone you can talk to about what you’re experiencing?

For emergency situations or additional support, contact a mental health organization like the following:

Overcoming suicidal gestures with Charlie Health

When someone is struggling with their mental health, it can be tough to find healthy ways to communicate distress or seek professional support. Charlie Health is dedicated to helping individuals overcome these challenges and develop healthier coping strategies. 

Our team of compassionate clinicians is here to support teens, young adults, and families struggling with mental health issues. Charlie Health will listen to your needs and find a personalized treatment program that is right for you. Start your healing journey today.

References

https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ps.53.9.1138

https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download;jsessionid=F67F2DD5321E3E6AEDC495C7C4D10003?doi=10.1.1.538.1560&rep=rep1&type=pdf

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16887199/https://www.charliehealth.com/crisis-toolkit

IOP

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2904564/

https://www.charliehealth.com/post/what-to-say-to-someone-who-self-harmshttps://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide

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