Suicidal ideation can be defined by the presence of obsessive, chronic thoughts about how one would end one’s own life. The severity of these thoughts, or ideations, can greatly range in severity from fleeting considerations to the development of detailed plans. Due to the fact that the terms are commonly used interchangeably, it must be noted, however, that suicidal ideation is not the same as suicidal behavior. Ideation itself is the act of forming or entertaining ideas, not participating in the suicidal act itself. While there are times when ideation does result in the act of committing suicide, the individuals usually draw the line at just entertain the thoughts, not follow through on them. Regardless, suicidal ideation must be taken seriously as that line has the potential to be crossed at any time.
It has been estimated that in the United States alone 94 suicides are completed every day. This means that one person attempts to end his or her life every 38 seconds. The Centers for Disease Control have broken the statistics of suicide down by age groups, as listed in the following:
- It is the fourth leading cause of death amongst children between the ages of 10 and 14.
- It is the third leading cause of death amongst adolescents and young adults between the ages of 15 and 24.
- It is the second leading cause of death amongst people between the ages of 25 and 34.
- It is the fourth leading cause of death amongst people between the ages of 35 and 54.
- It is the eighth leading cause of death amongst people between the ages of 55 and 64.
Males are approximately 4 times more likely to complete the act of suicide, yet females are more likely than males to experience chronic suicidal ideation. The common belief is that this is due to the fact that males tend to act on their initial thoughts rather than suffer from prolonged ideation.
Causes and Risk Factors of Suicidal Ideation
The causes and risk factors for suicidal ideation will vary from person to person based on the age of the person, the length of time in which he or she has been suffering from the thoughts, the environment by which he or she is surrounded, and the severity of the thoughts themselves. A combination of genetic, physical, and environmental factors are also believed to play a role in whether or not a person is susceptible to developing suicidal ideation.
Genetic: It is believed by many that genetics play a large role in the onset of suicidal ideation due to the fact that it is most commonly a symptom of some form of mental illness (most notably major depression and bipolar disorder), and mental illnesses are known to run in families. Studies conducted at Harvard University showed that more than 50% of individuals who have parents with depression will also develop symptoms (including suicidal ideation) of the condition before they reach the age of 20.
Physical: Chemical imbalances in the brain are said to contribute to the development of mental illnesses like major depression, which can ultimately result in suicidal preoccupations. A decreased level of serotonin is the most predominant chemical imbalance noted as leading a person to experience the onset of suicidal ideation.
Environmental: There are many environmental factors that can contribute to a person beginning to suffer from suicidal ideation. When people are subjected to unhealthy environments, they are at a high risk of developing maladaptive mental and emotional thoughts and behavior patterns. Being the victim of physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse can also have a major impact on a person entertaining ideas of wanting to end his or her life. For adults, things such as major financial struggles and unemployment can lead to suicidal ideation. Sadly, many adolescents are also known to be influenced by reports of celebrities having committed suicide. If young people idolize such celebrities, they too may begin to contemplate suicide as a viable option for ending their own emotional pain or physical struggles.
- Family history of depression or other mental illnesses
- Family history of completed acts of suicide
- Family history of violence
- Suffering from physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse and neglect
- Being the victim of bullying
- Suffering from major depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, or another form of mental illness
- Substance abuse
- Death of a loved one
Signs and Symptoms of Suicidal Ideation
The signs that a person is struggling with suicidal ideation will vary based on the age of the person, the support system or lack of support system that he or she has, and the individual’s personal temperament. The following are some examples that may indicate that a person is suffering with suicidal ideation:
- Acting reckless / not caring what the consequences of dangerous behaviors may be
- Dramatic mood changes
- Participating in self-harming behaviors
- Talking and/or writing about death
- Slowly beginning to give away possessions
- Verbally threatening to hurt oneself
- Becoming extremely isolated
- No longer participating in activities that one used to enjoy
- Increased drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Panic attacks
- Noticeable changes in physical appearance, such as no longer caring how one looks
- Significant weight gain or weight loss
- Inability to experience physical pleasure
- Difficulty concentrating
- The development of obsessions and preoccupations with death and dying
- Memory problems
- Difficulty focusing on specific tasks, including educational or occupational responsibilities
- Feeling “trapped”
- Severe anxiety
- Consistently increasing depression
- Feeling as though there is no purpose in existing
Effects of Suicidal Ideation
The longer that people experience chronic suicidal ideation, the risk that they will begin attempting to act on those ideations inevitably increases. These attempts can lead to significant health problems depending on the means in which they choose to attempt the act. Some of these health problems can include:
- Broken bones
- Failure of a specific organ
- Total organ failure
- Falling into a coma
- Brain damage
The most obvious effect that chronic suicidal ideation can have on a person is the following through of a suicidal act, resulting in his or her untimely death.
Suicidal ideation is itself most commonly a symptom of another mental illness and therefore tends to exist alongside the majority of other mental disorders. Examples of the various disorders that can elicit suicidal ideation can include:
- Depressive disorders
- Anxiety disorders (especially panic disorder)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder
- Antisocial personality disorder
- Eating disorders
- Adjustment disorders
- Schizoaffective disorder
- Substance abuse disorders