Suicidal Ideation Signs, Symptoms & Effects

Suicidal ideation is a clinical term that refers to having thoughts of ending one’s own life. Suicidal ideation can range from relatively fleeting thoughts of killing oneself, to a persistent preoccupation with suicide and the development of detailed plans for attempting suicide.

Understanding Suicidal Ideation

Learn about suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation is often but not always a symptom of a mental health disorder.

Suicidal ideation can be an isolating experience. People who struggle with thoughts of suicide may feel shame or guilt related to their thoughts, may mistakenly believe that there is something irreparably wrong with themselves or their lives, and may be unwilling or incapable of seeking treatment at a mental health clinic, treatment center, or another source.

It is important to understand that suicidal ideation is treatable. Various forms of treatment have proved to be effective at helping adolescents and adults to overcome suicidal ideation and resume their pursuit of happier and more satisfying futures.

If suicidal thoughts are symptomatic of depression or another mental health disorder, getting effective treatment at a clinic, treatment center, or another source can help to alleviate the underlying condition that is contributing to the suicidal ideation. If a person’s suicidal ideation is a temporary experience related to a specific external cause, professional care can help the person develop the healthy coping skills that will empower him or her to respond to future setbacks in a more productive manner.

Regardless of the internal or external factors that have prompted you or your loved one to develop suicidal ideation please know this: You are not alone, help is available, and treatment works.


Suicidal ideation statistics

Since suicidal ideation does not necessarily lead to suicidal behaviors or other measurable actions, it is extremely difficult to accurately determine the prevalence of suicidal thoughts. However, experts have been able to make educated estimates based upon ongoing data collection. For example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that more than 44,000 Americans die by suicide every year, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) estimates that more than 1 million other Americans attempt but fail to end their lives in an average year. Researchers with Emory University have estimated that about 3.7% of the population of the United States, or more than 8 million adolescents and adults, will think about committing suicide in an average year, and about 2 million of these people will develop a plan to end their lives.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for suicidal ideations

A person’s risk for experiencing suicidal ideation may be influenced by a wide range of internal and external factors. The following are examples of the more common influences that may increase the likelihood that you or someone that you care about will struggle with thoughts of suicide:

Genetic: Research indicates that having a family history of mental illness and/or suicidal behaviors can put you or your loved one at increased risk of suicidal ideation. Also, certain heritable personality traits such as impulsivity, as well as certain inherited chronic medical conditions can put a person at heightened risk for thoughts of suicide.

Environmental: Traumatic experiences such as being bullied, harassed, physically attacked, or sexually assaulted can increase the likelihood that a person will develop suicidal ideation. Experiencing a significant loss such as the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, or the loss of a job can also put a person at risk for suicidal thoughts. Other environmental factors that can influence the onset of suicidal thoughts include substandard social support and lack of access to effective mental health services.

Risk Factors:

  • Being female (men are more likely to die by suicide, but women are more likely to consider and attempt suicide)
  • Being Caucasian, African-American, or Native American
  • Developing a depressive disorder
  • Family history of mental illness or suicidal behaviors
  • Personal history of abuse, neglect, or other trauma
  • Abusing alcohol or other substances
  • Suffering a significant loss
  • Substandard social and mental health support

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation can be extremely difficult to detect. Some people exhibit a variety of signs, while others show little to no evidence that they are thinking about ending their own lives. Depending upon a variety of personal factors, if someone you love has been thinking about suicide, he or she may demonstrate or experience a wide range of symptoms, including the following:

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Sudden changes in behavior, including uncharacteristic recklessness or risk-taking
  • Downturn in performance at work or in school
  • Talking about getting affairs in order and/or giving away of prized possessions
  • Frequent discussions of death and dying
  • Withdrawing from friends and family members
  • Losing interest in activities or issues that were once of great importance

Physical Symptoms:

  • Diminished energy and persistent fatigue
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Headaches, stomach aches, and other generalized discomfort
  • Sexual dysfunction

Cognitive Symptoms:

  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Impaired ability to think clearly or make decisions
  • Intrusive thoughts of death and dying

Psychosocial Symptoms:

  • Dramatic mood swings
  • Diminished sense of self-worth
  • Anxiety
  • Hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal


Effects of suicidal ideation

The most obvious negative effect of suicidal ideation is that a person will actually attempt to end his or her own life. However suicidal behaviors are not the only harmful outcomes that can occur when a person does not get effective treatment for suicidal ideation. Individuals who struggle with thoughts of suicide may also experience the following:

  • Family discord
  • Strained or ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Serious physical injury
  • Diminished performance in school and/or at work
  • Academic failure and/or job loss
  • Chronic unemployment
  • Financial instability
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse and addiction
  • Pervasive sense of hopelessness and/or helplessness
  • Social withdrawal and isolation

Co-Occurring Disorders

Suicidal ideations and co-occurring disorders

Individuals who experience a variety of mental health disorders, including the following, may be at increased risk for suicidal ideation:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulimia nervosa
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoaffective disorder

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