Social isolation and feeling very lonely, trapped and hopeless are some of the most common warning signs that someone could be heading toward having suicidal thoughts. Every year, in the U.S. alone, there are more than 40,000 completed suicides and many more partial attempts. Millions of family members, friends, teachers and therapists are left behind in the wake of such suicidal actions, wondering what could have possibly been done to prevent them.
Some reports show that hundreds of thousands of people attempt suicide each year, most of which suffer from major depression beforehand, but might never have been diagnosed. It’s estimated that 25 percent to 35 percent of all suicides are directly due to depression. While not every person with depression has suicidal thoughts, when depression becomes severe and remains untreated, it’s possible it can escalate to this point.
Because a high percentage of people who attempt suicide and also might be depressed and commonly display other behavioral problems (such as having high amounts of anxiety or issues with substance abuse), certain warning signs are usually apparent prior to a suicide. Learning about the common warning signs of suicidal thoughts, along with other symptoms of major depression, can help you prevent suicidal episodes in someone who’s at risk.
What Are Suicidal Thoughts?
Suicidal thoughts involve contemplating taking one’s own life, usually along with experiencing other symptoms of depression or behavioral changes. For many who have suicidal thoughts, depression results as a reaction to trauma or a series of tragic life events. (1) It’s also been found that drug and alcohol abuse can worsen depression and make suicide more likely. One large study involving more than 43,000 people in the U.S. found that, among those who are the most depressed, approximately 20 percent also have substance abuse problems involving illegal drugs, prescriptions and alcohol.
Another surprising finding is that a high percentage of people with severe depression who might be at risk for suicide also display symptoms of other illnesses that might seem unrelated to mood changes. These include having stomach ulcers, IBS, speech disorders, arthritis and skin problems — which are actually rooted in high amounts of stress and inflammation.
Sometimes having a serious illness, like a cognitive disorder or cancer, for example (or even very old age), can lead to depression and possibly suicidal behavior. And unfortunately, it’s a vicious cycle, because the more depressed and stressed someone gets, the more that person’s overall health continues to decline.
Symptoms and Warning Signs Someone Is Having Suicidal Thoughts
Many patients with major depression have the perception that they’re totally alone, there is no one to listen to them or understand their problems, and that it’s impossible to find their way back to a hopeful, happier place.
It’s been found that most people who have attempted suicide or report having had suicidal thoughts in the past have the following symptoms and signs in common:
- Feeling depressed or extremely hopeless and sad. This usually stems from feeling like there’s no purpose in living, no connection to others that’s meaningful and no one who would care if they took their own lives.
- Not having any hope that things will get better in the future, feeling “trapped” and having the impression that treatment will never work.
- Feeling very isolated and alone. Even depressed patients who have very supportive and concerned family and/or friends can feel this way.
- Withdrawing from family, friends, community, co-workers, society in general and normal activities.
- Feeling very anxious, neurotic, agitated and uneasy. This can cause an increase in anxiety symptoms like rapid heartbeats, sweating, twitching or pacing, reduced appetite, and trouble sleeping.
- Having mood swings and dramatic changes in demeanor. This is a sign of bipolar disorder/manic depression in which patients fluctuate from manic low moods to feeling very energetic and even happy.
- Feeling very fatigued, uninterested in things that normally are enjoyable and unmotivated. Some patients with depression also have muscle aches, weakness and pains.
- Increasing use of alcohol, drugs or prescription pills, sometimes to the point of displaying signs of addiction or withdrawal.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states that specific warning signs that thoughts of suicide might be on someone’s mind, and therefore that you should intervene right away, include: (2)
- Showing signs of anger, rage, extreme aggression or violence.
- Suddenly abusing alcohol, drugs or prescription pills.
- Actively showing signs of seeking revenge against someone else.
- Acting out of character, such as making reckless, sudden and risky decisions.
- Threatening or talking about wanting to kill and/or hurt oneself.
- Looking for ways to hurt or kill oneself, such as seeking access to things like prescription pills, a firearm or another weapon.
- Writing about, making art about, singing about or showing other ways of expressing thoughts about death.
- Connecting over the Internet with others who have had suicidal thoughts, such as joining blog discussions or engaging in suicidal talk over social media platforms.
Risk Factors for Suicide and Underlying Causes of Depression
What types of circumstances and lifestyle factors might put someone at an increased risk for having suicidal thoughts or major depression? If someone currently struggles with another psychiatric disorder or has attempted suicide in the past, that person is in the high-risk category. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some other risk factors for having suicidal thoughts are: (3)
- A history of depression, anxiety, or another mental illness like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, an eating disorder, personality disorder or bipolar disorder.
- A family history of depression, especially if depression was severe and resulted in suicide attempts. It’s been found that, due to neurological changes and hormonal imbalances, there may be a genetic link to suicide.
- Abusing drugs, prescriptions or alcohol.
- Experiencing a very stressful event or trauma. This can include loss of a loved one, abuse, witnessing a death, military service, breakup or having serious financial or legal problems.
- Have a mental health condition that affects mood, including cognitive disorders like Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain or terminal illnesses that trigger hopelessness.
- Feeling alienated and not finding satisfaction in one’s work, relationships, life activities, community or hobbies.
- Feeling misunderstood or taken advantage of, perhaps due to financial reasons, being disabled or being a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person with unsupportive family/community.
Conventional Treatment for Suicidal Thoughts and Major Depression
Severe depression and suicide attempts are usually treated with a combination of prescription medications and therapy. While not every patient requires the use of medications to help overcome their symptoms tied to mood changes — which often include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors — many do. Medication alone is usually not the sole treatment used for depressed patients, however, because it often doesn’t solve all of the patient’s underlying psychological issues, the drugs can stop working over time and the prescriptions can also pose many side effects.
Experts believe that many suicidal patients stand a better chance of recovering from their mental health problems if they at least initially use medication while undergoing therapy. One drawback is that it’s been found that prescription anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications, along with other psychotropic drugs, can sometimes cause a number of side effects like dependence, weight changes, vision problems, fatigue, dizziness, indigestion and sexual dysfunction.
It’s important to note that one of the most well-known dangers of antidepressants is potentially increased suicidal ideation, which is why the FDA issued a “black box warning” to antidepressant prescriptions in 2004 for patients up to 18 years of age, extending it in 2007 to patients up to 24 years old. (4a, 4b)
Suicide Prevention and Natural Treatments for Suicidal Thoughts
1. Get Help from a Professional
If you’re having suicidal thoughts yourself, the very best thing you can do is contact someone who can help.
Find a therapist in your area, or even tell your primary doctor that you’re feeling very depressed and hopeless. Visiting a counselor who offers cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, can be one of the powerful things someone who is suicidal or very anxious or depressed does. The Texas Suicide Prevention Organization states that CBT works by teaching patients more effective, less risky ways of coping with stressors that precipitate suicidal crises or suicidal thoughts. Coping strategies are learned using behavioral, cognitive and interactional skills that teach patients to identify their own extreme, unrealistic, harmful and negative thoughts in order to not react to them. (5)
Here are a couple other ways you can reach out for help:
- Consider telling a friend, spouse or family member you know cares about your well-being.
- Confide in a local minister, spiritual leader, teacher or someone in your faith community you trust and know has good intentions.
- Call a suicide hotline to speak with a professional who’s trained in suicide intervention (more on this below).
- Make an appointment with a mental health provider who is available at your school, office, community center, etc.
2. Reach Out for Emergency Support
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline available at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) is a free and confidential service available 24/7 that helps those who might be having suicidal thoughts. The hotline can also be used by family members, friends, teachers or therapists who are looking for resources to prevent, treat and refer someone they know.
The suicide lifeline has been successfully used for years by those seeking help at the very moment that they fear there’s nowhere else to turn. Trained suicide crisis center counselors are available at all hours to listen to someone’s needs and offer emergency, free-of-charge crisis counseling or suicide intervention. Very importantly, they can also provide mental health referral information in order to get depressed patients the help they need.
3. Show Support for Someone You Know Who’s Suffering
What can you do to show someone who is having suicidal thoughts that you’re there for him or her and things aren’t hopeless? Experts recommend the following tips to show signs of care toward someone who’s desperately in need:
- Listen with concern, acceptance and attention. Try to sincerely hear out all of his or her feelings without offering advice or diminishing how they feel, instead just showing you’re willing to give him or her your time.
- Share your own feelings with him or her to let the person know that he or she is not alone. If you’ve ever felt depressed, anxious, very sad or alone, it’s OK to let your loved one know that you’ve been there and everyone has hard times.
- Voice your concern that he or she might make a reckless decision. Show that this upsets you deeply and that it’s important to you that he or she reconsiders his or her actions and get help right away.
- Be straightforward and ask outright if that person ever had suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in the past. If you feel that the question is inappropriate or likely to make matters worse, contact a professional who can intervene. If he or she does report having had suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and speak with someone who can help you get that person treatment right away.
4. Reduce Depression and Anxiety with a Supportive Diet
Believe it or not, it’s been shown that certain dietary choices can help lower depression symptoms and keep mental health problems from worsening. Changes to your diet that support mental health include: (6, 7, 8)
- Eating healthy fats — A whopping 60 percent of your brain is made up of fat. Healthy fats in your diet help support hormone production, are tied to more stable blood sugar, support positive moods and have anti-inflammatory effects that support cognitive health as you age. Consume omega-3 foods regularly, such as wild-caught salmon, sardines, walnuts and flaxseeds, in addition to healthy oils like coconut and olive oil.
- High-antioxidant foods — Antioxidants help keep the body and brain young, lower free radical damage that can disturb cognitive health, and support healthy nervous system functions.
- Foods rich in healthy bacteria — Probiotic foods maximize function of your gut-brain connection and may protect you from leaky gut, which is connected to both anxiety and depression.
- Avoiding too much sugar, processed foods, caffeine and alcohol — All of these are tied to higher levels of inflammation, blood sugar swings that can lead to worsened moodiness, and sometimes sleep trouble or anxiety.
5. Control Stress with Exercise and Mind-Body Practices
Exercise has been shown to help prevent and treat depressive symptoms by naturally boosting production of “happy hormones” like serotonin, endorphins and neuropeptides. Exercising outside seems to be especially beneficial for those with mood-related problems, sometimes outperforming commonly prescribed antidepressants. (9, 10) Begin gradually, or consider enlisting the help of an accountability partner or friend whom you can run, bike, dance, do yoga or go to the gym with.
- When feeling very down or anxious, try to calm the body naturally with essential oils for depression. These include lavender, chamomile, lemongrass, bergamot, ylang ylang and orange oil. (11, 12, 13) You can use essential oils in a warm bath or shower, or apply them to the skin when receiving a soothing massage.
- Change your brain with yoga. Yoga has been shown to release GABA, a natural “feel good” neurochemical, and calm an anxious or distressed nervous system. Some studies have also found yoga is associated with mental well-being. (14)
- Spend more time outdoors in nature in order to produce more brain-boosting vitamin D, and consider supplementing with additional vitamin D if you are deficient. Vitamin D supplements have been found to cause a “statstically significant improvement in depression,” according to one review. (15)
- Form new relationships and spend more time with those you feel close to.
- Regularly try guided meditation, or join a spiritual group to feel the healing power of prayer.
- Practice deep breathing exercises to learn to relax the body when anxious.
- Better manage stress with the help of herbs, supplements and other natural stress relievers. A number of adaptogen herbs, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals can help support hormone production, lower inflammation and stabilize moods. Some supplements shown to have benefits for those with depression and mood disturbances include omega-3s, vitamin D, SAMe, curcumin (from turmeric), rhodiola, ashwagandha and inositol. (16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21)
6. Find Something that Gives You Sense of Purpose
One of the most powerful things we can do to improve our own happiness and mental health is to find ways we can help others. Acts of kindness, teaching others, community service and volunteering are all powerful ways to feel more connected to those around us and enrich our sense of purpose. Ask yourself what gifts or talents you possess? What are you passionate about? What have you learned that you could share with others to help them become happier?
Suicide Statistics and Facts
- Suicide is currently the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. On average, about 42,773 Americans die due to suicide each year. (22)
- For every successful suicide, there are believed to be about 25 unsuccessful attempts. The U.S. alone spends more than $44 billion annually to deal with suicides along with attempts and suicidal behaviors.
- Although women suffer from depression more often than men and attempt more suicides, men die due to suicide 3.5 times more often than women.
- About 70 percent of successful suicides are among white men or white male teenagers. Successful suicides are most common during middle-age.
- The age group most likely to commit suicide is surprisingly those over 85, but the second leading age group is those between 45 and 64 years old.
- Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those between the ages of 10 and 24. However, fewer teenagers die each year from suicide than middle-aged or older adults.
- According to the Jason Foundation, more teenagers and young adults die from suicide each year than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. (23)
- Every day in the United States there are approximately 5,240 suicide attempts among high school students in grades seven to 12. Four out of five of these high school aged students who attempt suicide show some warning signs beforehand.
- 50 percent of all suicides involve use of a firearm.
- Suicide in the U.S. is most common among whites, followed by Native Americans.
- Suicides occur most often in second- or third-world countries, such as Guyana, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Lithuania. Globally, the U.S. ranks 30th in terms of the amount of suicides per 100,000 citizens.
Precautions Regarding Suicidal Thoughts
It goes without saying that suicidal thoughts should be taken very seriously. The information in this article is NOT intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified health care professional and is not intended as medical advice.
First and foremost, treating suicidal thoughts requires that warning signs be detected in someone who’s at risk or that someone who’s contemplating suicide reaches out for help individually. Initializing the process of getting treatment for major depression can be one of the hardest steps that an at-risk patient takes. Because hopelessness is so closely tied to depression and suicide, for someone who is suicidal, approaching a therapist, family member or close friend to talk about difficult feelings can seem overwhelming or even pointless. This is why it’s crucial to alert a professional if you notice warning signs of suicide right away.
Final Thoughts on Suicide Risk Factors, Suicidal Thoughts and Natural Treatments
- Suicidal thoughts are those that involve ending one’s own life, usually rooted in feelings of hopelessness, depression and isolation.
- Risk factors for suicide include having a history of depression, anxiety or other mental illness; abusing drugs or alcohol; experiencing trauma or a major upsetting life event; or having a neurological of terminal illness.
- Ways to help prevent and naturally treat suicidal thoughts include alerting a therapist, teacher, parent or suicidal hotline; consuming an anti-depression diet; supplementing to support cognitive health; and exercise and mind-body practices.
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