Suicide, or taking one’s own life, is a tragic reaction to stressful situations, grief and trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 12.3 million Americans contemplated suicide in 2021 alone. Of those people, over a quarter put together a plan for taking their life, and about 14 percent attempted suicide.
While experiencing suicidal thoughts can be scary and disturbing, it’s important to remember that help is within reach. Traumatic events, extreme stress and overwhelming grief aren’t always preventable, but suicide is. Seeking professional intervention is the key to gaining the coping tools and strategies necessary for not only managing suicidal risk but also improving your quality of life.
As always, if you or someone you know is in a life-threatening situation, it’s important to immediately call emergency medical services.
Understanding Suicidal Ideation and Its Triggers
Suicidal ideation, or thinking about taking one’s own life, can show up in the way a person thinks, talks and behaves. There are two types of ideation, including passive and active. Passive ideation occurs when the individual wishes they were dead or would die, but they don’t make a plan to end their life. On the other hand, active ideation occurs when the individual intends to die by suicide and puts together a plan.
A myriad of factors may trigger suicidal ideation. These may include:
- A history of mental illness, such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or bipolar disorder
- Unmanaged or poorly managed chronic pain
- Criminal or legal problems
- Job loss
- Impulsiveness and risk-seeking behaviors
- Substance use
- Victimization of violence or bullying
- Social isolation
- A family history of suicide
- Lack of access to health care
- Community violence
Along with these, there are societal risk factors that may make someone more vulnerable to suicidal ideation, including the stigma associated with seeking help and easy access to lethal means of suicide.
Self-Help Strategies for Coping with Suicidal Thoughts
Regardless of whether they’re passive or active in nature, suicidal thoughts can be disturbing and uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are several strategies that can help individuals manage and reframe these thoughts. Developing effective coping strategies is essential for coping with suicidal ideation and managing the thoughts and events that trigger it.
Call a Suicide Hotline
If you’re experiencing a crisis, resources such as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be invaluable. This helpline is free and available 24/7, giving you access to fast, compassionate help while letting you maintain anonymity.
Create a Safe Environment
While you can’t always control the thoughts that come into your mind, you can create a safe environment that reduces your ability to harm yourself. This may mean getting rid of pills, firearms or other objects that you may use to self-harm. If that’s not feasible, you may be able to stay with a friend or family member while you create a plan for managing suicidal risk.
Explore Medication Options
If suicidal thoughts stem from a mental illness such as postpartum depression or PTSD, medication can play a vital part in helping you manage your symptoms. Talk to your doctor about the symptoms you’re experiencing and be open to starting on antidepressants or changing your current medication or dosage.
Avoid Alcohol and Recreational Drugs
While alcohol and drugs can temporarily mask uncomfortable symptoms of mental illness, they can actually make your symptoms worse in the long run by intensifying feelings of sadness and hopelessness. On top of this, certain substances can lower inhibitions and make you more prone to life-threatening risk-taking behaviors. Instead, focus on practicing self-care, which may include getting adequate sleep, healthy meals and daily exercise.
Take Time to Focus on the Good Things in Life
For many who regularly experience suicidal ideation, it’s easy to focus on the trauma, loss or extreme stress you’ve endured and spiral into feelings of hopelessness and despair. While it’s important to learn to manage – rather than suppress – difficult emotions, it’s also necessary to maintain balance by considering the good things in life. Writing down things you’re thankful for can help you maintain a healthy perspective and keep from spiraling.
Seek Social Connections
Suicidal thoughts can be isolating, and it’s natural to avoid social interactions. However, it’s generally helpful to resist the urge to isolate yourself by seeking out human contact. Whether that’s planning regular evening meals with friends or family, going for a walk or joining a class or club where you’ll see the same group of people every time, guarding against loneliness can be an important part of your treatment plan for suicidal ideation.
Remember Past Experiences
Every loss, trauma and period of extreme stress or depression feels unique. However, it may be helpful to remember other times in your life when you were able to navigate challenging emotions and circumstances. This can build your confidence and give you the perspective you need to recognize that you have what it takes to get through this dark period as well.
Seek Professional Help
Managing ongoing suicidal thoughts isn’t something you need to do alone; professional help is available to help you address triggers, develop coping strategies and treat underlying conditions. Generally speaking, this involves medication and talk therapy, though your treatment plan for suicidal ideation will be unique to your needs.
The Role of Support Systems and Professional Help
Suicidal thoughts can be isolating, causing many people to withdraw from friends and family. However, a strong support system can give an individual the motivation and perspective they need to continue their mental health journey and manage suicidal thoughts.
Those who know someone living with suicidal thoughts can provide support by:
- Providing a listening ear without judgment, expectations or unsolicited advice
- Looking at suicidal ideation as a condition that needs professional intervention, rather than a manipulation or attention-seeking tactic
- Resisting the inclination to downplay uncomfortable emotions and negative thoughts
- Providing regular check-ins, either over the phone or, when possible, in person
- Requesting a welfare check when they’re concerned
In addition to a support group of friends and family, those living with suicidal ideation should seek out professional help. While talking to a trusted individual can help someone manage unhealthy thoughts in the moment, it typically doesn’t help resolve the issues that cause the thoughts in the first place. Until those issues are addressed, these thoughts may be an ongoing issue.
A licensed therapist can provide compassionate guidance and support in identifying the key triggers, traumatic experiences or underlying mental health conditions that are causing suicidal thoughts. They can also put together a treatment plan for suicidal ideation and help the individual build new coping skills, such as problem-solving, reframing unwanted thoughts and regulating emotions.
Promoting a Culture of Openness and Reducing Stigma Surrounding Mental Health Issues
Stigma against suicidal ideation is a significant barrier to treatment and prevention, resulting in social withdrawal and rejection, a reduced interest in talking about mental health status and affecting how the individual views themselves. Creating a culture of openness is key to managing suicidal risk in a community and empowering individuals to seek the help they need.
Some strategies for promoting a culture of openness include:
- Creating awareness for the prevalence of mental health problems, including suicidal ideation
- Being willing to be vulnerable and open about personal mental health challenges
- Resist making assumptions about someone else’s needs or mental health status
- Get comfortable with discussing mental health challenges
- Educating yourself on the statistics related to suicide and mental illness
Recurring thoughts of suicide can be scary and upsetting, but help is available. Learning to recognize and manage triggers, finding successful self-help strategies and connecting with a trusted mental health care provider can give you the tools you need to manage suicidal risk and overcome unwanted thoughts.