Blog | Mental Health and Addiction Treament

Understanding Suicidal Thoughts: A Practical Guide to Getting Help

By Martha McLaughlin 

Suicide isn’t an easy topic. It’s not a subject that’s brought up at parties, at the dinner table or even between friends. This discussion is usually avoided, so you may feel like you’re the only one having thoughts of suicide. But you’re not alone.

In fact, a U.S. study determined that 3.7 percent of adults had suicidal thoughts during the previous year.1  A 17-country examination found the average lifetime rate to be 9.2 percent.2 Out of all of those people in all of those countries, that’s a significant number. Let me say it again: you are not alone.

What Are My Suicidal Thoughts Like?

Woman on bed writingIt’s important to understand that suicidal thoughts, also called suicidal ideation, exist along a continuum. Thoughts of suicide should always be taken seriously, but some do represent a more urgent danger than others. Thoughts can vary in their frequency, intensity and subject matter.

  • Frequency – Sometimes suicidal thoughts are fleeting. They enter your mind and are quickly discarded. You may be dealing with a difficult situation, and your mind is brainstorming for ways to cope. The option of suicide presents itself, but you recognize that it isn’t a good solution and reject it. At the other end of the scale, thoughts of suicide may be almost constant, forming a backdrop that colors and affects most of your life. You may wake up in the morning with suicidal thoughts already present.
  • Intensity – The intensity of a thought can be measured by how easily it can be displaced by another one. Can you distract yourself? The more difficult that is, the more significant the thought is likely to be.
  • Subject matter – One indication that suicidal thoughts have become a more serious danger is the element of planning. At the lower end of the scale are thoughts that can be described as not wanting to live, but not actively planning to die. More serious thoughts involve imagining ways you could take your life. You may picture a method which isn’t easily accomplished or one in which methods and items are more accessible, which is an even greater danger. A significant mark of escalation is when thoughts and plans turn into rehearsing or role playing.

Let’s Get Practical, Even Though You Don’t Feel Like It

Suicidal thoughts occur for a multitude of reasons. Often, they’re related to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety. Sometimes, the thoughts are related to stressful circumstances, and at times, physical illness is a factor. When the thoughts are occurring, no matter the reason, it’s challenging to hold on to hope. Practical steps may be the last thing on your mind in the moment, but you can overcome that by making something of a cheat sheet to walk yourself through a difficult headspace.

Here are some great ways to care for yourself:

  • Make a list of people you can contact. It’s helpful to actually have a written list, rather than just a mental one, to remove the burden of having to remember something important when you’re in need.
    • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255 and is available around the clock.
    • Crisis Text Line can be accessed by texting TALK to 741741.
    • Depending on your personal circumstances, your list may contain names of friends and family members as well as your doctor, counselor or faith leader.
    • Remember that it’s natural for some people to respond in a more helpful manner than others, so if you don’t get the support you need when you first contact someone, accept it for what it is and move on to another person on your list.
  • Make your environment safe, or ask a friend to do it. It’s best not to have items in the home that can be used for self-harm.
  • Feed your hope. It’s been said that suicide is less of a desire to die than a desire for change. Remind yourself that change is not only possible, but inevitable, and that things will be different at some point in the future. In these moments, it may help to read stories of hope and recovery to remind you that what you’re feeling is temporary and you will get through it, like those on the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.3
  • Utilize healthy stress-relief and coping strategies. Simple relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation can often help your mind relax enough to remember the resources available to you and find light in the darkness. Exercise may also be helpful.
  • Distract yourself. A funny movie, good book, favorite music or walk in nature can sometimes brighten your mood and change your frame of mind. If you can manage it, going out and doing something with your friends can also be uplifting.
  • Avoid the temptation to cope with these thoughts through drugs or alcohol. Although they may seem to help in the short-term, they can disrupt brain chemistry in a way that may be detrimental to your overall well-being.
  • Do your best to deal with the underlying issues. A screening for depression or another mental health condition is warranted if you haven’t had one. If you’re already being treated, your thoughts may signal a need to adjust medications or therapy. A thorough physical exam is wise, because hidden infections can trigger inflammation, which can have an impact on the brain and mood. Improving sleep habits and your diet can be very helpful as well.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, please know that you are not alone. Don’t give up. If you’re struggling, please reach out for help. There will be a hand to help you through it.


1Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults Aged ≥18 Years — United States, 2008-2009.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 21, 2011.

2 Nock, Matthew K., et al. “Cross-National Prevalence and Risk Factors for Suicidal Ideation, Plans, and Attempts.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, February 2008.

3Stories of Hope and Recovery.” National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Accessed August 10, 2018.