Suicidial Ideation Causes, Symptoms & Signs

The signs of suicidal ideation can often be difficult to identify. Once an individual identifies the symptoms and side effects of suicidal ideation, the next step in the recovery journey become clear.

Understanding Suicidal Ideation

Learn about suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation is the clinical term for having thoughts about ending one’s own life. Suicidal ideation is a relatively broad term that can encompass a wide range of such thoughts from relatively fleeting ruminations, to detailed plans regarding when and how a person intends to attempt to end his or her life.

Suicidal ideation is not a form of mental illness. Instead, it is often, but not always, a symptom of a mental health disorder. Some people may experience suicidal ideation as the result of a particularly overwhelming experience or trauma, while others may struggle with suicidal ideation as a symptom of an anxiety disorder, a depressive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or one of several other forms of mental illness.

Regardless of the cause or causes of a person’s suicidal ideation, effective professional treatment can offer significant benefits. When a person’s suicidal ideation is associated with a mental health disorder, such care is essential in order to address the disorder itself and, as a result, alleviate the symptomatic suicidal thoughts.


Suicidal ideation statistics

Given that many people who have thoughts of suicide never act upon those thoughts, it is impossible to accurately discern how many individuals engage in suicidal ideation in the United States or throughout the world. However, several statistics collected by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) suggest that suicidal ideation is stunningly prevalent. For example, AFSP reports that more than 44,000 Americans die from suicide every year, and that more than one million other Americans attempt to end their own lives. Also, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in an average year more than 490,000 individuals visit a hospital in the United States because of a self-inflicted injury.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for suicidal ideation

Suicidal ideation can result from a variety of causes, and is often influenced by a combination of factors. The following are among the genetic and environmental factors that have been identified as possibly raising a person’s risk for engaging in suicidal ideation:

Genetic: Researchers have documented genetic components to many of the mental health disorders that have been associated with an increased risk for suicidal ideation. Individuals who suffer from certain heritable mental health disorders, or who have first-degree family members who have developed these disorders, may have an increased likelihood of experiencing thoughts of suicide. Anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, and bipolar disorder are three of the many mental health disorders that have genetic components and that can raise a person’s risk for suicidal ideation.

Environmental: Enduring overwhelming stresses or pressures, losing a loved one, or experiencing one or more other types of trauma are examples of environmental influences that can increase a person’s risk for suicidal ideation. People who experience such environmental influences and who also have a genetic predisposition for suicidal ideation may have an exponentially increased risk for developing persistent thoughts of suicide.

Risk factors:

  • Age (in the United States, suicide is most common among individuals ages 45 to 64)
  • Gender (the suicide rate among men is about 350 percent higher than among women)
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal history of mental illness
  • Prior substance use disorder
  • Abuse or neglect during childhood
  • Losing a loved one due to sudden death
  • Ineffective stress management capabilities

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of suicidal ideation

When a person is struggling with suicidal ideation, he or she may experience and/or display a variety of signs and symptoms, including but not necessarily limited to the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Talking, writing, or otherwise communicating often about death and dying
  • Expressing a sense of helplessness and/or hopelessness
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Withdrawing from friends and family members
  • Reducing or eliminating involvement in significant activities
  • Intentionally hurting or harming oneself
  • Acting with uncharacteristic recklessness and/or intentionally placing oneself in danger

Physical symptoms:

  • Disrupted sleep patterns, including either insomnia or hypersomnia
  • Significant change in appetite and weight
  • Increased heart rate, excessive perspiration, and other symptoms that may indicate or be similar to a panic attack
  • Obvious changes in physical appearance, including apparent neglect of grooming and personal hygiene
  • Persistent lack of energy, fatigue, and/or lethargy
  • Uncharacteristic bursts of energy

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Inability to concentrate or focus
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Problems with memory

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Pervasive sense of hopelessness and/or helplessness
  • Diminished self-esteem and self-worth
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Uncharacteristic outbursts of anger
  • Anhedonia
  • Dramatic mood swings


Effects of suicidal ideation

The most obvious negative effect of suicidal ideation is that a person will act upon these thoughts and end his or her own life. However, attempted suicide is not the only problematic outcome that can occur when a person does not get the help that he or she needs in order to alleviate thoughts of suicide. The following are among the many ways that suicidal ideation can negatively impact a person’s continued health and wellbeing:

  • Irreversible brain damage
  • Permanent damage to vital organs
  • Physical injury due to propensity for reckless or otherwise dangerous behaviors
  • Legal problems, including arrest and incarceration, resulting from impaired decision-making skills and/or propensity for recklessness
  • Family discord
  • Strained and ruined interpersonal relationships
  • Substandard academic and/or occupational performance
  • Academic failure, job loss, and unemployment
  • Onset or worsening of mental health disorders
  • Diminished self-esteem
  • Loss of motivation
  • Pervasive sense of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Social withdrawal or ostracization

Co-Occurring Disorders

Suicidal ideation and co-occurring disorders

As noted previously on this page, suicidal ideation can be a symptom of a mental health disorder. The following are among the mental health disorders that are most commonly associated with suicidal thoughts and actions:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
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