Understanding Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors
Mental health impacts every aspect of our lives. But, how we feel and function from day to day can vary dramatically. Even the way we describe how we’re doing to others can fluctuate quickly: from thriving and doing well; to trying to cope with difficult feelings and challenging situations; to really struggling and feeling distressed.
When we’re thriving, life can feel easy and unimpeded. When we’re feeling stressed or distressed, through our thoughts and feelings interfere with our ability to get things done, maintain relationships, and have a good quality of life. Sometimes the challenges pass with time or are resolved after external situations change in positive ways. Other times the feelings persist and feel like they can’t be resolved.
In cases like this, when struggles are chronic or overwhelming, it’s important to take action before it gets worse and/or interferes with major aspects of our life. This includes ways that create additional challenges, like losing a job, academic probation, damaging relationships, substance misuse, or legal troubles.
When mental health challenges persist, they can lead to feelings of hopelessness and possibly to suicidal thoughts. Suicide can be a frightening and often misunderstood aspect of mental health challenges, so here are a few important things to know in the event that you or someone in your life may be struggling with suicidal thoughts.
Know the Warning Signs
The warning signs of suicide aren’t always big, obvious signals that something is wrong, but warning signs are usually present in some shape or form. Things to look for can include:
- Feeling persistently depressed or anxious
- Loss of appetite or other self-care activities
- Changes in behavior
- Loss of interest in activities we usually enjoy
- Pulling away from relationships
- Keeping secrets
- Signs of despondency like talking about feeling empty, alone, or being over it
Dig deeper and learn more about the warning signs of suicide.
Factors That Contribute to Thinking About Suicide
A lot of things can contribute to suicidal thoughts and behaviors. But, for the vast majority of people who consider suicide, there’s no clear or singular cause. While the factors below may contribute to heightened vulnerability for the distress and hopelessness that can lead to conisdering suicide, they don’t cause suicide directly. Risk factors for suicidal thoughts include:
- Early childhood experiences
- Family environment
- Mental health outlook (how you perceive things to be improving or worsening)
- Willingness to seek help
- Coping skills
- Support networks
- Stressors and life challenges
- Trauma history
- History of bullying or stressful peer relationships
Social models, like family, close friends, or even characters we identify with on TV shows and films are also a source of risk. It’s important to know that underlying vulnerabilities aren’t the same as the triggers that can lead to thoughts of suicide. Common triggers include break-ups, significant financial loss, bullying (including cyberbullying), or other traumatic events.
Asking for Help Isn’t a Sign of Weakness
When we experience physical health issues we rarely worry that it will reflect badly on us if we let someone know we’re in pain. Mental health concerns should be treated the same way. When we’re struggling, we often have a hard time thinking clearly and processing in logical ways. For example, people who are feeling hopeless, or who are thinking about suicide, often expereince what’s called “cognitive constriction” — thinking in binary terms — good/bad, acceptible/not acceptible, and right/wrong. In these times it can feel like there’s no way to stop the pain and this makes us vulnerable to thinking that our loved ones, or the world in general, would be better off without us. This kind of thinking can feel real and true and so it can be really hard to understand that such thinking is actually distorted and can’t be trusted.
It’s also important to know that having suicidal thoughts isn’t uncommon. For most people, thoughts of ending their life as a way of feeling better are fleeting and never progress to more serious consideration. But, for some of us, such thoughts become persistent and, in some cases, lead to more concrete plans. The possiblity that suicide might become an option for someone in distress is why it’s important to speak up if we or someone we know are feeling hopeless, having suicidal thoughts or have more developed plans. It’s really important to know that most people who have suicidal thoughts end up finding ways to cope or get the support they need.
Ways to Get Help
Almost all people who’ve been suicidal or have survived suicide attempts say they’re glad they lived. They find the coping skills they need, get professional help, or seek out a support network in order to live a fulfilling, productive life. It’s common to feel like no one will understand what you’re going through in that moment or that they won’t be able to help, but it’s important to remember that there are always things we can do to find support and feel better.
Trust Your Instincts
Suicide is often an impuslive act. So, while it’s common to feel hopeless or think about suicide over an extended period of time, the time between the decision to end life and an actual suicide attempt is often very short. That’s why it’s so important to trust our instincts if we’re worried about ourselves or a friend. It’s always better to reach out and be wrong about what’s happening, than to stay quiet and risk losing someone we care about or potentially harming ourselves.
Coping with feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide, whether in onself or in someone you know, can be overwhelming. If you’re unsure what to do next, text START to 741741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor anytime. And, if you’re worried that there’s an immediate threat of harm, call 911 or emergency services immediately. Support is here for you. You aren’t alone.