How Are Trauma, PTSD, and Suicide Linked?
By Lauren Krouse
After a traumatic event or a series of traumatic experiences, you may find yourself struggling with feelings of hopelessness, trouble managing intense emotions, sleepless nights, or even thoughts of suicide. That is not uncommon.
If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or you’re worried about someone else, reach out for help as soon as possible.
Here’s what you need to know about suicide and how to get help.
Many people who experience trauma or develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) do not experience suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts, but it can happen. Knowing the signs and asking if someone is thinking about suicide could save a life. If you’re struggling, you can begin to feel better when you ask for professional support—no matter how long it’s been.
Here’s how to tell someone you are thinking about suicide.
The relationship between trauma, PTSD, and suicide risk is complex, and researchers are still working to learn more about it. Here’s what we know so far and how treatment for PTSD can help.
Can Trauma and PTSD Increase the Risk of Suicide?
Trauma and PTSD can lead to a higher risk of suicide. Research shows people with a history of trauma and PTSD have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and suicide.
About 14% of trauma survivors and nearly one in three people with PTSD have reported a suicide attempt, and previous suicide attempts are a very serious risk factor for suicide. Certain types of trauma, especially experiences in which you’ve been hurt by another person, may be linked to a higher risk of suicide attempts. They include:
- Complex trauma, meaning repeated or continuous traumatic experiences, such as childhood neglect or abuse, sexual abuse, or physical abuse.
- Experiencing discrimination or identity- or race-based hatred and violence.
- Being sexually or physically assaulted.
- Being kidnapped or held hostage.
- War-related trauma, such as peacekeeping or relief work in a war zone.
Those experiences may lead a higher risk of suicide attempts because they could make you feel disconnected from other people or develop a higher tolerance for pain and fear after repeatedly being exposed to dangerous situations.
U.S. veterans, active service members, and first responders such as firefighters, police officers, and paramedics have higher rates of PTSD and suicide.
Why Is PTSD Linked to a Higher Risk of Suicide?
We don’t know exactly what’s at the root of the link between PTSD and suicidality.
Studies suggest the more traumatic experiences you’ve gone through, the higher the risk of thoughts of suicide can become. In veterans, serious injury is linked to the highest suicide risk, and guilt over actions taken during war may also fuel suicidal thoughts, according to the National Center for PTSD. We also know coming from a certain community can lead to higher rates of PTSD, such as identifying as LGBTQIA+ or being African American. When those identities intersect with jobs—like first responders—that have high rates of PTSD, the risk increases.
Some symptoms of PTSD, such as feeling hopeless or like you want to pull away from others, may also play a role. For teens and young adults with PTSD, it can also feel like your emotions are dialed way up and it’s hard to manage on your own. Sometimes it can lead to struggles that can also increase your risk of self-harm, problems with alcohol and drugs, and suicidal behaviors.
Other mental health conditions, such as depression and borderline personality disorder, also come with PTSD and a higher risk of suicide, so the impact of those factors is important to consider.
More research is needed, according to the American Psychological Association, but experts also say there are many reasons for hope.
Suicide Is Preventable and PTSD Treatment Can Help
Most people who experience trauma, including those who go on to develop PTSD, do not experience suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts. But if you or someone you care about is struggling, multiple studies have found that PTSD treatment can lower suicidal thoughts that could lead to suicidal behaviors. Getting professional support as soon as possible can be life-saving. Learn more about treatment for trauma and PTSD.
If you or someone you know needs help right now:
- Text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day.
- Text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.
- If this is a medical emergency or there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.