What Is Suicidal Ideation?

A Look at Dangerous Thought Patterns

Woman with suicidal ideation
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Strictly speaking, suicidal ideation means wanting to take your own life or thinking about suicide. However, there are two kinds of suicidal ideation: passive and active. Passive suicidal ideation occurs when you wish were dead or that you could die, but you don't actually have any plans to commit suicide. Active suicidal ideation, on the other hand, is not only thinking about it but having the intent to commit suicide, including planning how to do it. Suicidal ideation is one of the symptoms of both major depression and the depression found in bipolar disorder.

Prevalence

The lifetime prevalence of suicidal ideation for the general world population is about 9 percent and about 2 percent within a 12-month period. In 2016, 4 percent of adults in the United States had suicidal thoughts based on figures from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. This number was highest in 18- to 25-year-olds, with 8.8 percent of that age group experiencing suicidal ideation.

For those with mental health disorders, the rate is significantly higher. The exact numbers are unclear, but since suicidal ideation is a symptom of mental health disorders like major depression and bipolar disorder, the problem exists at a far greater percentage in this population.

Suicide is on the rise, with half of the states in the United States reporting more than a 30 percent increase since 1999 and nearly all the rest reporting increased rates since then, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2016, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the second leading cause of death among 10- to 34-year-olds. Women attempt suicide more often than men, but men are successful about three to four times more often than women.

Causes

Many different factors can contribute to suicidal ideation. Often these thoughts strike when you're feeling hopeless and out of control of your life and/or like it has no meaning or purpose. This may be due to circumstances like relationship problems, trauma, substance use, a crisis of some sort, pressure at work, a physical health issue, or financial difficulties. Having any mental health disorder such as depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or anxiety can also contribute.

Risk Factors

There are a variety of risk factors for suicidal ideation and suicide, such as:

  • Having attempted suicide in the past
  • Having a mental health disorder
  • Feeling hopeless, isolated, and/or lonely
  • Not being married
  • Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender
  • Having served in the military
  • Having a chronic physical illness like cancer, diabetes, or a terminal disease
  • Having chronic pain
  • Having a traumatic brain injury
  • Having a family history of suicide
  • Having a drug or alcohol abuse disorder
  • Having experienced childhood abuse or trauma
  • Living in a rural area
  • Having access to firearms

Signs

Warning signs that you or a loved one are thinking about or contemplating suicide include:

  • Isolating yourself from your loved ones
  • Feeling hopeless or trapped
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Giving away possessions
  • An increase in substance use or abuse
  • Increased mood swings, anger, rage, and/or irritability
  • Engaging in risk-taking behavior like using drugs or having unprotected sex
  • Accessing the means to kill yourself, such as medication, drugs, or a firearm
  • Acting as if you're saying goodbye to people
  • Feeling extremely anxious

If you are having suicidal ideation, get help. Talk to your doctor, mental health care professional, a close friend, or a religious mentor such as a minister. Alternatively, you can call a suicide hotline such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

How to Help

If you think a loved one is thinking about or planning suicide, ask. It's a myth that you'll give another person the idea to kill him or herself. Asking shows that you're concerned and that you care about the person. Be aware that passive suicidal ideation, wishing that you could die in your sleep or in an accident rather than by your own hand, is not necessarily any less serious than active suicidal ideation. It can quickly turn active and it most certainly has a blend of active and passive components.

If your loved one admits that he is thinking about suicide, make sure he is safe. Be there for her if and when she needs you. If the situation is serious, you may need to involve his doctor or mental health professional or perhaps call a suicide hotline for advice or help. Keep checking on her until you feel certain that she's in a safe state of mind again.

Tips to Reduce Suicidal Ideation

Here are some ways to help reduce suicidal thoughts and get the help you need to get back on track, whether it's you or a loved one:

  • Identify triggers. Look for triggers or circumstances that lead to feelings of despair such as a death or a loss, alcohol, or stress from relationships. Eliminate what you can and talk to someone, such as a counselor or close friend, about the others.
  • Remember that feelings are temporary. Feelings come and go and are not permanent. Even when life seems hopeless, you can get on the road to feeling better with treatment. You'll learn how to cope with life stresses, as well as to get a new perspective. Sometimes even just taking a nap or going to bed when you're feeling especially low can reset your mood, at least enough to stop the suicidal thoughts.
  • Take care of yourself. In addition to eating healthy meals regularly and never skipping meals, get plenty of rest and relaxation to stave off stress and help your body recuperate from days' past. Exercise is also important for relieving stress and improving your emotional well-being.
  • Build a community of support. Make the time to be around people with positive influences on your life and those who make you feel good about yourself. Also, don't forget to give back to your community either through money or your time. Helping others and giving back can be a great way to get out of your own head and to find meaning.
  • Get active. Just as old habits have to die to let go of suicidal ideation, new ideas must take their place to stick. Develop your personal and professional interests. Find fun things to do, volunteer activities, or work that gives you a sense of purpose. When you’re doing things you find fulfilling, you’ll feel better about yourself and those feelings of despair are less likely to return.
  • Relax. Find personal ways to relieve stress levels. In addition to exercising, you can meditate, use sensory strategies to relax, practice simple breathing exercises, and challenge self-defeating thoughts to help you overcome suicidal thoughts.

A Word From Verywell

Call 1-800-273-8255 or go to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's website to talk if you're experiencing suicidal thoughts. They're available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for you or a loved one. Though it may be difficult, studies show that if you're able to talk to someone regularly, particularly in a face-to-face situation like to a close friend or counselor, you're less likely to attempt suicide.

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Article Sources
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Suicide Rising Across the US. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated June 11, 2018. https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. Suicide and Suicidal Thoughts. Mayo Clinic. Updated May 5, 2018. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/suicide/symptoms-causes/syc-20378048

  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Statistics: Suicide. National Institutes of Health. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Updated May 2018. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml

  • Schreiber J, Culpepper L. Suicidal Ideation and Behavior in Adults. UpToDate. Updated August 22, 2018. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/suicidal-ideation-and-behavior-in-adults

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