What are suicidal thoughts?

Suicidal thoughts, or suicide ideation, refers to thinking about or planning suicide. Thoughts can range from creating a detailed plan to having a fleeting consideration. It does not include the final act of suicide. Many people experience suicidal thoughts, especially during times of stress or when they are facing mental or physical health challenges.

Suicidal thoughts are a symptom of an underlying problem. Treatment is effective in many cases, but the first step is to ask for help. If a loved one is having these thoughts or talking about suicide, it is essential to take action to help and protect them.

Symptoms

A person who experiences or could experience suicidal thoughts may show the following signs or symptoms:

  • feeling or appearing to feel trapped or hopeless
  • feeling intolerable emotional pain
  • being preoccupied with violence, dying, or death
  • having mood shifts, either happy or sad
  • talking about revenge, guilt, or shame
  • experiencing agitation or a heightened state of anxiety
  • experiencing changes in personality, routine, or sleep patterns
  • increasing the use of drugs or alcohol
  • engaging in risky behavior, such as driving carelessly or taking drugs
  • getting their affairs in order and giving things away
  • getting hold of a gun or substances that could end a life
  • experiencing depression, panic attacks, or impaired concentration
  • isolating themselves
  • talking about being a burden to others
  • experiencing psychomotor agitation, such as pacing or wringing the hands
  • saying goodbye to others as though it were the last time
  • experiencing a loss of enjoyment in previously pleasurable activities, such as eating, exercise, social interaction, or sex
  • expressing severe remorse and self-criticism
  • talking about suicide or dying
  • expressing regret about being alive or ever having been born

A significant number of people with suicide ideation keep their thoughts and feelings a secret and show no sign that anything is wrong.

Learn more about the warning signs of suicide here.

Causes

Suicide ideation can occur when a person feels that they are no longer able to cope with an overwhelming situation. This could stem from financial problems, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or a debilitating illness or health condition.

Some other common situations or life events that might cause suicidal thoughts include grief, sexual abuse, financial problems, remorse, rejection, and unemployment.

The following risk factors may increase the chance of suicide ideation:

  • a family history of violence or suicide
  • a family history of child abuse, neglect, or trauma
  • a history of mental health issues
  • a feeling of hopelessness
  • knowing, identifying, or being associated with someone who has completed suicide
  • engaging in reckless or impulsive behavior
  • a feeling of seclusion or loneliness
  • identifying as LGBTQIA+ with no family or home support
  • not being able to access care for mental health issues
  • a loss of work, friends, finances, or a loved one
  • having a physical illness or health condition
  • possessing a gun or other lethal methods
  • not seeking help due to fear or stigma
  • stress due to discrimination and prejudice
  • historical trauma, such as the destruction of communities and cultures
  • having attempted suicide before
  • experiencing bullying or trauma
  • exposure to graphic or sensationalized accounts of suicide
  • exposure to suicidal behavior in others
  • experiencing legal problems or debt
  • being under the influence of drugs or alcohol

Conditions that researchers have linked to a higher risk of suicide ideation include:

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