What Is Suicidal Ideation?

Understanding Suicidal Thoughts in Teens

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Suicidal ideation describes thoughts, fantasies, ideas or images related to committing suicide. This term is also sometimes referred to as suicidal thoughts. The word ideation is defined as forming or entertaining ideas.

Passive vs. Active Suicidal Ideation

For teens, thoughts of suicide can range from fleeting thoughts of suicide to making actual plans to end their life. For this reason, mental health professionals discuss suicidal ideation in terms of being either passive or active.

Passive suicidal ideation about suicide includes experiencing vague ideas about committing suicide. Suicide is viewed as a possible way to end the pain, but usually, no action is taken.

Active suicidal ideation is when a teen experiences persistent thoughts of suicide and continues to feel hopeless. When the ideation is active, a teen begins to take steps to carry out a suicide attempt.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading causes of death for children, teens, and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24. 

What Causes Suicidal Thinking? 

Suicidal ideation in teens is often caused by untreated depression or drug abuse and always needs to be taken seriously.

Suicidal thoughts often have many causes. Social difficulties, stress, academic pressures, and other concerns facing teens may contribute to suicidal thoughts.

Other risk factors include:

  • Poor social relationships
  • Lack of family support
  • Physical or sexual abuse
  • Substance and alcohol misuse
  • Health issues
  • Bullying

Genetic factors can play a role in depression and suicide risk. Teen that experience suicidal thoughts are often more likely to have family members who have died by suicide.

Warning Signs of Suicidal Thoughts

There are quite a few signs that your teenager may be experiencing suicidal ideation. Be on the lookout for:

  • Isolation and withdrawing from social contact, especially if it's sudden
  • Being self-destructive or engaging in risk-taking behaviors
  • Looking for and/or acquiring means to commit suicide, such as getting a gun or a lot of medication
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Frequently talking about death or dying
  • Saying things like, "I wish I were dead" or "I wish I had never been born"
  • Giving away possessions for no particular reason
  • Expressing hopelessness or a feeling of being trapped with no way out
  • Changing sleeping, eating or other patterns
  • Making a point to say goodbye to people
  • Beginning to use alcohol and/or drugs, or using them more frequently
  • Changing obvious characteristics of their personality
  • Becoming extremely agitated, upset, depressed and/or anxious

Remember, warning signs can be different for every individual, and some teens keep these thoughts and feelings to themselves, If you feel like your teenager is showing any of these signs or just seems not quite themselves, be sure to consult your physician as soon as possible.

Early intervention is important with any mental illness and if suicide is something your teen is considering, it's an emergency situation. 

An Example of Suicidal Ideation

Ivana, age 15, feels very sad when her best friend moves away and she experiences a deep sense of loneliness and insecurity. One night she finds herself thinking about suicide as a way to end the painful feelings she is having. She pictures herself taking a bottle of pills and drifting into a deep sleep she will not wake up from. When she wakes up the next day her suicidal ideation has changed, she knows it’s an option but is feeling better and decides to call a friend she hasn’t spoken to in a while.

What to Do

If a teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are steps that parents, friends, and guardians can take.

For parents:

  • Keep guns and prescription drugs away from children and teens
  • Watch for signs of substance abuse and get help immediately if you suspect there is a problem
  • Let the teen know that you recognize their pain
  • Be supportive, understanding, and nonjudgemental
  • Know the warning signs of suicide and depression

Address untreated mental illness. If your teen has symptoms of depression, anxiety, or another psychiatric condition, talk to your child's pediatrician. While most people with mental health conditions do not attempt suicide, having an undiagnosed or untreated condition along with other risk factors can make suicide more likely.

Never ignore or make light of suicide threats. Don't dismiss suicidal talk as "typical teen drama." If a child is making comments such as "I might as well kill myself" or "I wish I was dead," you need to listen and acknowledge their pain. Let them know that you understand that they are hurting, that you are there to offer support, and that you will help them get the help that they need.

Get the individual the help they need. If you are a parent or guardian, talk to your child's pediatrician and get a referral to a professional mental health provider. Your child's doctor or therapist may recommend psychotherapy, medications, and lifestyle changes that can help reduce the risk of suicide.

If you are a teen and you are concerned that your friend is thinking about suicide:

  • Take signs of suicide seriously
  • Encourage your friend to talk to their doctor or a trusted adult
  • Talk to a teacher, parent, or another adult about your friend and your concerns

In Case of Emergency

If you or your teen need immediate help for suicidal ideation, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Alternatively, you can call a suicide hotline number. In the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255).

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