Suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation
Sappho (1897) by Ernst Stückelberg
Classification and external resources
ICD-10 R45.8
ICD-9-CM V62.84
MeSH D059020

Suicidal ideation, also known as suicidal thoughts,[1] concerns thoughts about or an unusual preoccupation with suicide. The range of suicidal ideation varies greatly from fleeting thoughts, to extensive thoughts, to detailed planning, role playing (e.g., standing on a chair with a noose), and incomplete attempts, which may be deliberately constructed to not complete or to be discovered, or may be fully intended to result in death, but the individual survives (e.g., in the case of a hanging in which the cord breaks).

Most people who have suicidal thoughts do not go on to make suicide attempts, but it is considered a risk factor.[1] During 2008-09, an estimated 8.3 million adults aged 18 and over in the United States, or 3.7% of the adult US population, reported having suicidal thoughts in the previous year. An estimated 2.2 million in the US reported having made suicide plans in the past year.[2]

Suicidal ideation is generally associated with depression and other mood disorders; however, it seems to have associations with many other mental disorders, life events, and family events, all of which may increase the risk of suicidal ideation. For example, many individuals with borderline personality disorder exhibit recurrent suicidal behavior and suicidal thoughts. One study found that 73% of patients with borderline personality disorder have attempted suicide, with the average patient having 3.4 attempts.[3] Currently, there are a number of treatment options for those experiencing suicidal ideation.

Signs and symptoms

Suicidal ideation has a straightforward definition — suicidal thoughts — but there are some other related signs and symptoms. Some symptoms or co-morbid conditions may include unintentional weight loss, feeling helpless, feeling alone, excessive fatigue, low self-esteem, presence of consistent mania, excessively talkative, intent on previously dormant goals, feel like one's mind is racing.[4] The onset of symptoms like these with an inability to get rid of or cope with their effects, a possible form of psychological inflexibility, is one possible trait associated with suicidal ideation.[5] They may also cause psychological distress, which is another symptom associated with suicidal ideation.[6] Symptoms like these related with psychological inflexibility, recurring patterns, or psychological distress may in some cases lead to the onset of suicidal ideation. Other possible symptoms and warning signs include:


Risk factors

There are numerous indicators that one can look for when trying to detect suicidal ideation. There are also situations in which the risk for suicidal ideation may be heightened. The risk factors for suicidal ideation can be divided into 3 categories: psychiatric disorders, life events, and family history.

Psychiatric disorders

There are several psychiatric disorders that appear to be comorbid with suicidal ideation or considerably increase the risk of suicidal ideation.[8] The following list includes the disorders that have been shown to be the strongest predictors of suicidal ideation. It should be noted, however, that these are not the only disorders that can increase risk of suicidal ideation. The disorders in which risk is increased the greatest include:[9]

Prescription drug side effects

Some prescription drugs, such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, can have suicidal ideation as a side effect. Moreover, these drugs' intended effects, can themselves have unintended consequence of an increased individual risk and collective rate of suicidal behavior: Among the set of persons taking the medication, a subset feel bad enough to want to commit suicide (or to desire the perceived results of suicide) but are inhibited by depression-induced symptoms, such as lack of energy and motivation, from following through with an attempt. Among this subset, a "sub-subset" may find that the medication alleviates their physiological symptoms (such as lack of energy) and secondary psychological symptoms (e.g., lack of motivation) before or at lower doses than it alleviates their primary psychological symptom of depressed mood. Among this group of persons, the desire for suicide and/or its effects persists even as major obstacles to suicidal action are removed, with the effect that the incidences of suicide attempt and of completed suicide increase.

Life events

Life events are strong predictors of increased risk for suicidal ideation. Furthermore, life events can also lead to or be comorbid with the previous listed psychiatric disorders and predict suicidal ideation through those means. Life events that adults and children face can be dissimilar and for this reason, the list of events that increase risk can vary in adults and children. The life events that have been shown to increase risk the greatest are[12]

Family history

Relationships with parents and friends

According to a study conducted by Ruth X. Liu of San Diego State University, a significant connection was found between the parent–child relationships of adolescents ranging from early, middle and late adolescence and their likelihood of suicidal ideation. The study consisted of measuring relationships between mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, mothers and sons and fathers and daughters. The relationships between fathers and sons during early and middle adolescence shows an inverse relationship to suicidal ideation. Closeness with the father in late adolescence is "significantly related to suicidal ideation".[22] Liu goes on to explain the relationship found between closeness with the opposite sex parent and the child's risk of suicidal thoughts. It was found that boys are better protected from suicidal ideation if they are close to their mothers through early and late adolescence; whereas girls are better protected by having a close relationship with their father during middle adolescence.

An article published in 2010 by Zappulla and Pace found that suicidal ideation in adolescent boys is exacerbated by detachment from the parents when depression is already present in the child. Lifetime prevalence estimates of suicidal ideation among nonclinical populations of adolescents generally range from 60% and in many cases its severity increases the risk of completed suicide.[23]


Early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. If signs, symptoms, or risk factors are detected early then the individual will hopefully seek treatment and help before attempting to take his/her own life. In a study of individuals who did commit suicide, 91% of them likely suffered from one or more mental illnesses. However, only 35% of those individuals were treated or being treated for a mental illness.[24] This emphasizes the importance of early detection; if a mental illness is detected, it can be treated and controlled to help prevent suicide attempts. Another study investigated strictly suicidal ideation in adolescents. This study found that depression symptoms in adolescents as early as grade 9 is a predictor of suicidal ideation. Most people with long-term suicidal ideation do not seek professional help.

The previously mentioned studies point out the difficulty that mental health professionals have in motivating individuals to seek and continue treatment. Ways to increase the amount of individuals who seek treatment may include:

A study conducted by researchers in Australia set out to determine a course of early detection for suicidal ideation in teens stating that "risks associated with suicidality require an immediate focus on diminishing self-harming cognitions so as to ensure safety before attending to the underlying etiology of the behavior". A Psychological Distress scale known as the K10 was administered monthly to a random sample of individuals. According to the results among the 9.9% of individuals who reported "psychological distress (all categories)" 5.1% of the same participants reported suicidal ideation. Participants who scored "very high" on the Psychological Distress scale "were 77 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than those in the low category".[6]

In a 1-year study conducted in Finland, 41% of the patients who later committed suicide saw a health care professional, most seeing a psychiatrist. Of those, only 22% discussed suicidal intent on their last office visit. In most of the cases, the office visit took place within a week of the suicide, and most of the victims had a diagnosed depressive disorder.[25]

There are many centers where one can receive aid in the fight against suicidal ideation and suicide. Hemelrijk et al. (2012) found evidence that assisting people with suicidal ideation via the internet versus more direct forms such as phone conversations has a greater effect.


Treatment of suicidal ideation can be puzzling due to the fact that several medications have actually been linked to increasing or causing suicidal ideation in patients. Therefore, several alternative means of treating suicidal ideation are often used. The main treatments include: therapy, hospitalization, outpatient treatment, and medication/other modalities.[26]


In psychotherapy a person explores the issues that make them feel suicidal and learns skills to help manage emotions more effectively.[27][28]


Hospitalization allows the patient to be in a secure, supervised environment to prevent the suicidal ideation from turning into suicide attempts. In most cases, individuals have the freedom to choose which treatment they see fit for themselves. However, there are several circumstances in which individuals can be hospitalized involuntarily. These circumstances are:

  1. If an individual poses danger to self or others
  2. If an individual is unable to care for oneself

Hospitalization may also be the best treatment if an individual:

Outpatient treatment

Outpatient treatment allows individuals to remain at their place of residence and receive treatment when needed or on a scheduled basis. Being at home may improve quality of life for some patients, because they will have access to their books and computer, and be able to come and go freely. Before allowing patients the freedom that comes with outpatient treatment, physicians evaluate several factors of the patient. These factors include the patient's level of social support, impulse control and quality of judgment. After the patient passes the evaluation, they are often asked to consent to a "no-harm contract". This is a contract formulated by the physician and the family of the patient. Within the contract, the patient agrees not to harm themselves, to continue their visits with the physician, and to contact the physician in times of need.[26] There is some debate as to whether "no-harm" contracts are effective. These patients are then checked on routinely to assure they are maintaining their contract and avoiding dangerous activities (drinking alcohol, driving fast without wearing a seat belt, etc.).


Prescribing medication to treat suicidal ideation can be difficult. One reason for this is that many medications lift patients' energy levels before lifting their mood. This puts them at greater risk of following through with attempting suicide. Additionally, if a patient has a co-morbid psychiatric disorder, it may be difficult to find a medication that addresses both the psychiatric disorder and suicidal ideation. Therefore, the medication prescribed to one suicidal ideation patient may be completely different from the medication prescribed to another patient. However, there are several medications that seem to work fairly well for treating suicidal ideation:[26]

Antidepressants have been shown to be a very effective means of treating suicidal ideation. One correlational study compared mortality rates due to suicide to the use of SSRI antidepressants within certain counties. The counties which had higher SSRI use had a significantly lower number of deaths caused by suicide.[29] Additionally, an experimental study followed depressed patients for one year. During the first six months of that year, the patients were examined for suicidal behavior including suicidal ideation. The patients were then prescribed antidepressants for the six months following the first six observatory months. During the six months of treatment, experimenters found suicide ideation reduced from 47% of patients down to 14% of patients.[30] Thus, it appears from current research that antidepressants have a helpful effect on the reduction of suicidal ideation.

Although research is largely in favor of the use of antidepressants for the treatment of suicidal ideation, in some cases antidepressants are claimed to be the cause of suicidal ideation. Upon the start of using antidepressants, many clinicians will note that sometimes the sudden onset of suicidal ideation may accompany treatment. This has caused the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to issue a warning stating that sometimes the use of antidepressants may actually increase the thoughts of suicidal ideation.[29] Medical studies have found antidepressants help treat cases of suicidal ideation and work especially well with psychological therapy.[31] Lithium[32] and Clozapine[33] have both been shown to reduce suicidal ideation. The Times quotes Dr. Herbert Meltzer suggesting "clozapine might turn out to be effective for suicidal patients with other illnesses like manic depression...or depression."[34]

See also


  1. 1 2 Gliatto, MF; Rai, AK (March 1999). "Evaluation and Treatment of Patients with Suicidal Ideation". American Family Physician. 59 (6): 1500–6. PMID 10193592. Retrieved 2007-01-08.
  2. Crosby, Alex; Beth, Han (October 2011). "Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors Among Adults Aged ≥18 Years --- United States, 2008-2009". Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). 60 (13). Retrieved 2015-01-08.
  3. Soloff, PH; Kevin, GL; Thomas, MK; Kevin, MM; Mann, JJ (1 April 2000). "Characteristics of Suicide Attempts of Patients With Major Depressive Episode and Borderline Personality Disorder: A Comparative Study". American Journal of Psychiatry. 157 (4): 601–608. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.4.601. PMID 10739420.
  4. American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.
  5. 1 2 3 4 Valenstein, H; Cronkite, RC; Moos, RH; Snipes, C; Timko, C (2012). "Suicidal ideation in adult offspring of depressed and matched control parents: Childhood and concurrent predictors". Journal of Mental Health. 21 (5): 459–468. doi:10.3109/09638237.2012.694504. PMID 22978501.
  6. 1 2 Chamberlain, P; Goldney, R; Delfabbro, P; Gill, T; Dal Grande, L (2009). "Suicidal Ideation: The Clinical Utility of the K10". Crisis. 1. 30 (1): 39–42. doi:10.1027/0227-5910.30.1.39. PMID 19261567.
  7. Harris, K. M.; Syu, J. J.; Lello, O. D.; Chew, Y. L. E.; Willcox, C. H.; Ho, R. H. M. (2015). "The ABC's of suicide risk assessment: Applying a tripartite approach to individual evaluations". PLoS ONE. 10: 6. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0127442.
  8. Hemelrijk, E; Van Ballegooijen, W; Donker, T; Van Straten, A; Kerkhof, A (2012). "Internet-based screening for suicidal ideation in common mental disorders". Crisis: the Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention. 33 (4): 215–221. doi:10.1027/0227-5910/a000142. PMID 22713975.
  9. Harris, EC; Barraclough, B (1997). "Suicide as an outcome for mental disorders. A meta analysis". The British Journal of Psychiatry. 170 (3): 205–228. doi:10.1192/bjp.170.3.205. PMID 9229027.
  10. Lemon, TI; Shah, RD (2013). "Needle exchanges – a forgotten outpost in suicide and self-harm prevention". Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 74 (6): 551–552. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychores.2013.03.057. (subscription required (help)).
  11. Lemon, TI (2013). "Suicide ideation in drug users and the role of needles exchanges and their workers". Journal Psych Med. 6 (5): 429. doi:10.1016/j.ajp.2013.07.003. PMID 24011693.
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  14. Dugas, E; Low, NP; Rodriguez, D; Burrows, S; Contreras, G; Chaiton, M; et al. (2012). "Early Predictors of Suicidal Ideation in Young Adults". Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 57 (7): 429–436. PMID 22762298.
  15. "Cyberbullying Research Summary – Cyberbullying and Suicide" (PDF). Cyberbullying Research Center. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  16. "The relationship between bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts/behaviour in Irish adolescents". Department of Health and Children. Retrieved 3 July 2012.
  17. Richardson, JD; St Cyr, KC; McIntyre-Smith, AM; Haslam, D; Elhai, JD; Sareen, J (2012). "Examining the association between psychiatric illness and suicidal ideation in a sample of treatment-seeking Canadian peacekeeping and combat veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD". Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 57 (8): 496–504. PMID 22854032.
  18. 1 2 Thompson, R; Litrownik, AJ; Isbell, P; Everson, MD; English, DJ; Dubowitz, H; et al. (2012). "Adverse experiences and suicidal ideation in adolescence: Exploring the link using the LONGSCAN samples". Psychology of Violence. 2 (2): 211–225. doi:10.1037/a0027107. PMC 3857611Freely accessible. PMID 24349862.
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Further reading

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