Understanding Suicidal Thoughts
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in teenagers, and deaths by suicide are on the rise in teens and young adults. Sometimes, suicide can seem sudden—but in many cases, the person who attempts suicide has been struggling with suicidal thoughts, which are thoughts about wanting to end their life. Suicidal thoughts can range from passing thoughts about death to specific thoughts about how and when they would end their life, and they can lead to risky behaviors that put their life in danger.
Suicidal thoughts are not normal—they are a warning sign that someone is seriously struggling. But they can be temporary, and can be overcome with the right treatment.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Suicidal Thoughts vs. Suicidal Behavior
When someone thinks about ending their life, they are having suicidal thoughts or, in more scientific words, engaging in suicidal ideation. Sometimes, these thoughts can be more passive—for example, when someone is preoccupied with thoughts about death or violence, wishes they were dead, or believes others would be better off if they were dead. But sometimes, someone actively thinks about suicide—for example, using hopeless language like, “I want to die,” planning how to say goodbye to people, thinking of what to write in a suicide note, and planning how, where, and when to attempt suicide.
When someone puts their suicidal thoughts into action, they are engaging in suicidal behavior. Changes in eating or sleeping habits, withdrawing from friends and family, and changes in mood are all potential signs of suicidal behavior. If you notice these behaviors in a friend, even if you’re not sure whether they are having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to express your concern.
Risk Factors for Moving from Suicidal Thoughts to Suicidal Behaviors
Research shows that there are certain causes of suicidal thoughts that can increase the risk of someone engaging in suicidal behavior:
- Social isolation: When someone feels they do not belong to any group or feels disconnected from relationships that are meaningful to them, they may feel like no one will miss them.
- Feeling like a burden: When someone feels that their life is more of a burden than a benefit to their friends and family, they can start to believe that people would be better off if they were gone.
- High tolerance for pain or lethal situations: When someone has been exposed to painful experiences like abuse, self-injury, substance misuse, or other destructive behaviors, they are more likely to be able to overcome their self-preservation instinct. If someone is engaging in painful suicidal behaviors, they may be training themselves to continue the behavior through the pain.
There are certain situations that can contribute to these feelings. Some are long-term situations, like if someone has a history of abuse, or is living with a chronic mental or physical illness. Other times, these feelings can be made worse by a sudden tragic event, like losing a loved one unexpectedly, receiving a serious medical diagnosis, getting fired, or failing out of school.
If someone feels overwhelmed by the situation they’re in, or feels like there’s no way out, they may start to feel hopeless. If they start to feel like their life is pointless, they may believe that they’re a burden to others—which may make them pull away from their loved ones, increasing their feelings of isolation. Without positive relationships or a feeling of purpose in life, suicidal behaviors can get worse.
Groups At Risk of Suicide
Among teens and young adults, research shows that there are groups that are more likely to have suicidal thoughts, engage in suicidal behaviors, and attempt suicide:
- Someone who has attempted suicide in the past, or has a family history of suicide, is at a higher risk for future attempts
- Young people who identify as LGBTQ+ who face hostile environments at school or at home, or who experience rejection from their families, are more likely to consider suicide
Women and girls are more likely to attempt suicide, while boys and men are more likely to die by suicide. In part, this is because of the means of suicide: men typically choose more violent methods than women do.
How to Tell If Suicidal Behavior is Leading to a Planned Suicide Attempt
With suicide, there aren’t always clear-cut stages of behavior. Moving from suicidal thoughts to behaviors to a planned attempt does not always happen in a linear way. For example, someone can think passive suicidal thoughts like “life is pointless” while driving recklessly, while someone else could think of what they would write in a suicide note without planning the means to attempt suicide. Because suicidal thoughts and behaviors don’t always escalate in a clear way, it can sometimes be hard to tell when someone is feeling suicidal and planning a suicide attempt.
However, some suicidal behaviors are more reliable indicators that someone is planning to attempt suicide. If you are concerned about a loved one, watch for the following signs:
- Gathering the means to attempt suicide, such as buying a gun or stockingpiling pills
- Writing a suicide note
- Increasing self-destructive or harmful behavior, like reckless driving or escalating drug use
- Giving away their belongings or writing a list of instructions for giving away belongings after they die
- Saying goodbye to their loved ones, believing they won’t see them again
- Using hopeless or despondent language, such as “I want to die,” “what’s the point of being alive?” or “no one would miss me if I died.”
- A sudden shift in behavior from agitated and angry to calm. While it may seem like their mood has improved, it can mean they are “at peace” because they have a plan to end their life.
What to Do if You Are Having Suicidal Thoughts
If you are feeling suicidal, remember that suicidal feelings can be overcome. Even if your situation feels hopeless now, there are people in your life who care about you and want you here.
You can recover from suicidal feelings with the right support. If you are having suicidal thoughts, engaging in suicidal behaviors, or are planning a suicide attempt, seek help immediately. Reach out to an adult you trust, like a parent, doctor, or counselor, and be honest with them about how you are feeling.
You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255 for a free and confidential conversation at any time.
What to Do if You Suspect a Friend is Suicidal
It’s important to know that talking about suicide with someone will not cause them to attempt it. There are some effective ways to help a friend or loved one who you’re concerned about.
What to Avoid
- Do not guilt them for their thoughts or behaviors, as this can increase their sense of shame and social isolation.
- Do not argue or debate the morality of suicide with them.
What to Do
- Be honest with them about your concerns.
- Calmly ask direct questions, such as: “Do you have a plan to commit suicide?” or “Do you think about hurting yourself or ending your life?”
- Offer to help them reach out to a therapist or doctor for support.
- If you’re able to and you feel safe enough to, remove anything they may use to harm themselves, such as knives, firearms, alcohol, or medications.
- Most of all, be patient. They may not yet be ready to receive help. Keep the door open by continuing to gently check in on them if the signs you notice persist.
- If you or someone you love are in immediate danger, call 9-1-1.