Why am I having suicidal thoughts?

Olivia Lubarsky, TEDx Speaker, Program Coordinator for the John W. Brick Foundation

Suicidal thoughts are common—but it’s still very frightening to experience them. What are these feelings and thoughts building in your head? Why might you be focused on dying? Intrusive thoughts can momentarily interrupt your day—but having regular, distressing suicidal thoughts can cloud your mind for days, weeks, or months.

Sudden life changes and trauma may lead to suicidal thoughts. Many people experience grief as a response to loss: the death a loved one, unemployment, loss of support services, or other drastic changes to our typical lifestyle. Grief can present itself as shock, anxiety, distress, frustration, or sadness. These emotions push us to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. We may feel powerless to cope. It may even feel like we’ve lost our reason to live.

Social isolation can increase the likelihood of suicidal thoughts [1]. While the COVID-19 pandemic has encouraged physical distance, it is important to remain socially connected. There are many safe ways to do so! Reach out to family for weekly calls, start a virtual book club with some friends, or gain comfort by spending time with pets.

Suicidal thoughts that pop into your head may not mean you have an actual desire to die. Still, it’s not always so simple to brush them off. Sometimes people use alcohol or drugs to feel better, but the long-term effects of substance use can lead to emotional and mental health problems. Whether or not there is intent behind your suicidal thoughts, these thoughts are often a sign of mental illness.

  • Research consistently shows a direct link between depression and suicide [2].
  • Bipolar disorder can cause atypical shifts in energy levels and mood. Nearly 30% of those diagnosed with bipolar disorder will attempt suicide at least once [3].
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs after significant trauma and can cause a person to feel hopeless about their future [2].
  • Schizophrenia can distort a person’s reality, and this unsettling perspective can contribute to suicidal thoughts [2].

Taking certain medications can also produce suicidal thoughts as a side effect. When you start a new medication, consult with your doctor about the potential side effects.

If you think you may be experiencing a mental illness like depression or anxiety, take one of MHA’s mental health screens. Then keep reading about what mental illness is and how it works. Learning what you are experiencing and why can empower you to find hope and continue living.

One of the most important things you can do is simply to know that you’re not alone. About 9.3 million adults in the United States reported having suicidal thoughts in 2013 alone—4% of the adult population. 2.7 million had created a suicide plan. The numbers are much higher for youth—17% of high school students seriously considered attempting suicide [4]. The vast majority of these people are able to find the strength to go on living. (The fact that suicidal thoughts are so much less common in adulthood is good reason to hope that things can get better!)

Still, suicidal thoughts are serious. There’s no need to face them alone! Sharing these thoughts with a trustworthy person can help—such as a friend, family member, or counselor. Talking to someone can help put your thoughts in perspective and help you feel more in control of them. Here is a template for how to begin the conversation:

  • For the past (day/week/month/______), I have been feeling (hopeless and exhausted). I have struggled with (thoughts about dying). Telling you this makes me feel (nervous), but I’m telling you this because (I’m worried about myself and I don’t know what to do). I would like to (talk more about this) and I need your help.

If you’re not sure who to talk to, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK, or text “MHA” to 741-741 to talk to a trained counselor from Crisis Text Line.

References:

  1. Trout. (1980). The role of social isolation in suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 10(1), pp. 10-23. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7361340/
  2. SAVE: Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. Mental Illness and Suicide. Retrieved from
    https://save.org/about-suicide/mental-illness-and-suicide/
  3. Read. (2020). Warning Signs to Be Aware of in Suicidal Bipolar Patients. VeryWell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/red-flags-warning-signs-of-suicide-379034
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Suicide: Facts at a Glance. Retrieved from https://stacks.cdc.gov/view/cdc/34181