Suicidal thoughts are a surprisingly common issue. So why do we still find it so hard to talk about it?
Partly it’s because there can still be a stigma around discussing this painful topic, which can cause people to feel embarrassed or ashamed. They might also not want to distress family and friends by revealing their thoughts, or feel fearful of the consequences if they disclose them to a doctor.
Yet suicidal thoughts (also known as ‘suicidal ideation’), actually affect a high number of people in the UK — one in five of us, according to mental health charity, Mind. What’s more, Mind suggests that this figure could be an underestimate. In other words, this is an issue that can affect all of us, either directly or indirectly.
One of the biggest misconceptions around this issue is that a person with suicidal thoughts always has an intention to end their life. This isn’t always the case and there are actually different categories of suicide ideation, which we’ll explore shortly.
As well as this, these thoughts can exist on a spectrum, from a person being very unlikely to act on them to a person being highly at risk of doing so. However, as one in 15 people in the U.K. will attempt to end their life, if someone you know is expressing suicide ideation then it should never be ignored.
But even if a person doesn’t have a strong intent to end their life, these kinds of thoughts are distressing and can point to deeper issues. That’s why it is important to seek help and support, whether that’s through your GP, a helpline like the Samaritans, local support group, trusted loved one or compassionate, non-judgmental therapy to help you explore what’s happening without shame or stigma.
Now let’s try to demystify this issue by looking at different kinds of suicidal ideation:
This type of suicidal thought involves a person thinking through various methods of ending their life and perhaps even planning a date to do it. It might come after long-term distress or depression, or when someone feels that they have so many problems piling up that they’ve gone beyond their window of tolerance and have no way out.
This kind of suicide ideation is the one most likely to result in a person ending their life. For this reason, if you are actively planning suicide then it’s important that you seek help soon, no matter how hard that feels. What you’re going through is nothing to be ashamed of and support is out there. You don’t have to struggle with this alone.
As mentioned, there are various avenues of help, so try to choose the one that feels most comfortable for you.
An intrusive thought is a distressing image or idea that randomly pops into your head without warning, sometimes frequently. There are different types of intrusive thoughts, with suicide or self-harm being a common category.
Intrusive thoughts about suicide are different from actively choosing to daydream or fantasise about it — in fact, they are characterised by being involuntary. Most likely, you will find yourself trying to push them away or suppress them. So while it is upsetting and confusing to have images of suicide flash into your head, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you wish to end your life.
Rather, these thoughts can point to an underlying mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Women with postnatal depression can also experience them. Thankfully, you can learn to manage unwanted mental images, including through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) or Mindfulness Therapy. You might also find our guest blog post on managing intrusive thoughts helpful.
Sometimes, we can have feelings or thoughts of not wanting to be here anymore while not actually intending to end our life. This could be during or after a time of stress or upset, or because we are feeling lonely, empty or disconnected.
This is known as a passive suicidal thought and is often more of a dark form of daydreaming than an active plan to harm ourselves. Still, it is worth paying attention to why you are having these thoughts and what kind of situations in your life might be triggering them. Try to see them as signposts pointing to issues — past or present — that might need to be faced.
At times, you might experience such overwhelming distress that fantasising about suicide can actually be a coping mechanism. For instance, if you are feeling extremely sad, angry, lonely, afraid or heartbroken, then thoughts of escaping it all by ending your life can provide a kind of temporary relief.
The key is to try to find healthier forms of release from emotional distress, such as self-soothing practices. A good therapist can help you to develop a ‘toolkit’ of these strategies, meaning that when your feelings get too much you can turn to that instead.
5. Angry or vengeful suicidal thoughts
If you have been hurt, ignored, rejected, abandoned or misunderstood by others, then you might understandably feel angry. You might also feel helpless in the face of people’s indifference, mistreatment or even abuse.
Suicide revenge fantasies can be one way of coping with this situation. In essence, this is a fantasy that if you end your life then ‘That will show them how wrong they were for treating me this way and then they’ll be sorry’.
While these feelings are very human, they often come from a place of deep disempowerment and disconnection - feeling unable to communicate how you feel to others. In essence, they point to a need to explore your relationship with both yourself and others, including how you set boundaries or cope with the inner critic. They can also point to a need to process the pain and trauma of things like rejection, abandonment or abuse, perhaps rooted in childhood. They should never be ignored.
As we’ve seen, the reasons for suicidal thoughts can be complex. Among other things they can be a sign of anxiety, a coping strategy, or an indication that we need urgent support.
But even if you have no intention of harming yourself, if you are experiencing this kind of thought then it’s important to reach out and talk to someone. This is because suicide ideation is almost always a sign of an underlying issue that needs to be explored. And if you can identify what that is, then you can start to move away from distressing thoughts towards a better understanding of yourself.
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