Topics and Terms

This page offers definitions of terms commonly used in suicide prevention. Many of these terms are also used in other public health and behavioral health contexts, where they may be defined somewhat differently.


A comprehensive evaluation, usually performed by a clinician, to confirm suspected suicide risk in a patient, estimate the immediate danger, and decide on a course of treatment. Also see Screening. To learn more, read SPRC’s Suicide Screening and Assessment.


Characterized by a high level of risk for suicide and/or a low level of protection against suicide risk factors. An individual displaying warning signs of suicide would also be considered at risk. Note that most members of any at-risk group will not display warning signs, attempt suicide, or die by suicide. Also see Warning signsRisk factor, and Protective factor.

Behavioral health

Emotional and mental health, and individual actions that affect wellness. Behavioral health problems include substance abuse and addiction, serious psychological distress and mental disorders, and suicidal behaviors. “The term is also used to describe the service systems encompassing the promotion of emotional health; the prevention of mental and substance use disorders, substance use, and related problems; treatments and services for mental and substance use disorders; and recovery support.” [SAMHSA (2011). Leading change: A plan for SAMHSA’s roles and actions 2011–2014. HHS Publication (SMA) 11-4629. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.]


“A group of suicides or suicide attempts, or both, that occurs closer together in time and space than would normally be expected in a given community.” [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1988). Recommendations for a community plan for the prevention and containment of suicide clusters. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, August 19, 1988, 37(S-6), 1-12]. Some researchers divide clusters into (1) “mass clusters,” in which “suicides occur closer in time than would be expected by chance following media coverage,” and (2) “point clusters,” which “involve suicides or episodes of suicidal behavior localized in both time and geographic space, often occurring within a small community or institutional setting.” [Niedzwiedz, C., Haw, C., Hawton, K., and Platt, S. (2014). The definition and epidemiology of clusters of suicidal behavior: A systematic review. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior44(5), 569-581.] Also see Contagion.


“The degree to which a person or group is socially close, interrelated, or shares resources with other persons or groups. This definition encompasses the nature and quality of connections both within and between multiple levels of the social ecology, including connectedness between individuals, connectedness of individuals and their families to community organizations, and connectedness among community organizations and social institutions.” [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Strategic direction for the prevention of suicidal behavior: Promoting individual, family, and community connectedness to prevent suicidal behavior. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Suicide risk associated with the knowledge of another person’s suicidal behavior, either firsthand or through the media. Suicides that may be at least partially caused by contagion are sometimes called “copycat suicides.” Contagion can contribute to a suicide cluster. Also see Cluster.

Copycat suicide

See Contagion.

Evidence-based practices

Suicide prevention activities that have been found effective by rigorous scientific evaluation. See Evidence-Based Prevention page.

Gatekeeper training

Programs that teach individuals who routinely have personal contact with many others in their community (i.e., “gatekeepers”) to recognize and respond to people at potential risk of suicide. To learn more, take SPRC’s online course, Choosing and Implementing a Suicide Prevention Gatekeeper Training Program.


Seeking care or assistance for emotional distress, a mental health condition, or suicidal thoughts.

Indicated intervention

An activity that targets individuals who exhibit symptoms or have been identified by screening or assessment as being at risk for suicidal behavior. For example, safety planning for people who have reported thinking about suicide is an indicated intervention. Also see Selective intervention and Universal intervention.


An activity or set of activities designed to decrease risk factors or increase protective factors. Also see Universal interventionSelective intervention, and Indicated intervention. To learn more, take SPRC’s online course, A Strategic Planning Approach to Suicide Prevention.

Lethal means

Methods of suicide with especially high fatality rates (e.g., firearms, jumping from bridges or tall buildings). Also see Means.

Lethal means restriction

See Means restriction.

Lived experience

“Knowledge gained from having lived through a suicide attempt or suicidal crisis.” [National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention Suicide Attempt Survivors Task Force. (2014). The way forward: Pathways to hope, recovery, and wellness with insights from lived experience. Washington, D.C.: National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.]


Objects, instruments, and methods used by people in suicide attempts (e.g., firearms, poisons, suffocation, jumping from buildings or bridges).

Means restriction

“Techniques, policies, and procedures designed to reduce access or availability to means and methods of deliberate self-harm.” [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. (2012). 2012 National strategy for suicide prevention: Goals and objectives for action. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.]

Nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI)

Injury inflicted by a person on himself or herself deliberately, but without intent to die.


Activities following a suicide to help alleviate the suffering and emotional distress of the survivors, and prevent additional trauma and contagion. See also Suicide loss survivor and Contagion.


Activities implemented prior to the onset of an adverse health outcome (e.g., dying by suicide) and designed to reduce the potential that the adverse health outcome will take place.

Protective factor

An attribute, characteristic, or environmental exposure that decreases the likelihood of a person’s developing a disease or injury (e.g., attempting or dying by suicide) given a specific level of risk. For example, depression elevates a person’s risk of suicide, but a depressed person with good social connections and coping skills is less likely to attempt or die by suicide than a person with the same level of depression who lacks social connections and coping skills. Social connections and coping skills are protective factors, buffering the suicide risk associated with depression and thus helping to protect against suicide. Also see Risk factor (below).

Risk factor

“Any attribute, characteristic, or exposure of an individual that increases the likelihood of developing a disease or injury” (e.g., attempting or dying by suicide). [World Health Organization. (n.d.). Retrieved from ]. Risk factors do not necessarily cause a disease or injury, but can contribute to negative health outcomes like suicide or suicide attempts in combination with other risk factors. For example, depression, access to firearms, and substance abuse disorders (individually and in combination) increase the likelihood of attempting or dying by suicide, although most people with these risk factors do not attempt suicide. Risk factors should not be confused with warning signs. Also see Protective factor and Warning signs.

Safe messaging

Media or personal communications about suicide or related issues that do not increase the risk of suicidal behavior in vulnerable people, and that may increase help-seeking behavior and support for suicide prevention efforts. To learn more, go to the National Action Alliance Framework for Successful Messaging and Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide.


A procedure in which a standardized tool, instrument, or protocol is used to identify individuals who may be at risk for suicide. Also see Assessment. To learn more, read SPRC’s Suicide Screening and Assessment.

Selective intervention

Activities targeting a group whose members are generally at higher than average risk for an adverse health condition (e.g., suicidal behaviors) regardless of whether individual members of the group display symptoms or have been screened for the condition. For example, suicide prevention interventions targeted at victims of intimate partner violence is a selective intervention because intimate partner violence is associated with increased risk of suicidal behaviors. Also see Indicated intervention and Universal intervention.

Suicidal behaviors

Suicide, suicide attempts, suicidal ideation, and planning/preparation done with the intent of attempting or dying by suicide.

Suicidal crisis

A suicide attempt or an incident in which an emotionally distraught person seriously considers or plans to imminently attempt to take his or her own life.

Suicidal ideation

“Thoughts of engaging in suicide-related behavior.” [Crosby, A.E., Ortega, L., Melanson, C. (2011). Self-directed violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements. Version 1.0. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.]


“Death caused by self-directed injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior.” [Crosby, A.E., Ortega, L., and Melanson, C. (2011). Self-directed violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements. Version 1.0. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.]

Suicide assessment

See Assessment.

Suicide attempt

“A nonfatal, self-directed, potentially injurious behavior with any intent to die as a result of the behavior. A suicide attempt may or may not result in injury.” [Crosby, A.E., Ortega, L., Melanson, C. (2011). Self-directed violence surveillance: Uniform definitions and recommended data elements. Version 1.0. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.]

Suicide attempt survivor

A person who has attempted suicide, but did not die. Also see Suicide loss survivor (below)

Suicide loss survivor

A person who has lost a family member, friend, classmate, or colleague to suicide. Sometimes called “suicide survivor,” although the term “suicide loss survivor” is often favored to avoid confusion with “suicide attempt survivor.”

Suicide plan

An individual’s thinking about a suicide attempt that includes elements such as a timeframe, method, and place.

Suicide screening

See Screening.

Suicide survivor

See Suicide loss survivor.

Universal intervention

An activity designed to prevent negative health outcomes (e.g., suicide attempts and suicides) in an entire population regardless of the risk status of members of that population. For example, a middle school life skills curriculum that includes coping and help-seeking skills is a universal intervention, since it would be directed at all the students in that middle school regardless of their level of risk for suicide. Also see Indicated intervention and Selective intervention.

Warning signs

Behaviors and symptoms that may indicate that a person is at immediate or serious risk for suicide or a suicide attempt. To learn more, visit our Warning Signs for Suicide page.