Suicide Research Articles & Resources

Kaia Koglin
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is Suicide?

Suicide is death that occurs when a person takes action to end their own life, whereas a suicide attempt is when a person tries to end their own life but doesn't die as a result. It’s a serious public health issue that affects not only those who die by suicide but also the friends, family, and caregivers of those living with and/or following through on suicidal ideation.
In 2020, there were 45,979 deaths by suicide in the United States (1). It’s estimated that in the same year, 12.2 million American adults seriously thought about suicide, and 1.2 million attempted it (2). Suicide is among the top nine leading causes of death for all Americans aged 10-64 (3).

It’s important for people contemplating suicide to remember that it’s a permanent solution to a temporary crisis. Someone who's suicidal may not be able to see a way to fix their problem, but that doesn’t mean a solution doesn’t exist. Emotional pain can distort thinking, but talking to a therapist, counselor, or loved one can provide fresh and potentially life-saving insight.

Understanding suicide can help people get the right assistance if they or someone they know is considering ending their life.

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What Causes Someone to Consider Suicide?

The reasons someone may consider suicide are unique to each person, but they almost always come from a place of extreme, prolonged physical or emotional pain. Suicidal thoughts are frequently rooted in feelings of hopelessness or lack of worth.
Common causes of suicidal feelings include:

In addition to an individual’s unique circumstances, wider societal problems can contribute to suicidal thoughts. This can include racism and other forms of discrimination. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are more likely to attempt suicide than straight high schoolers (4). Similarly, American Indian/Alaska Native populations have higher suicide rates than other groups (5). Other demographics more at risk for suicide include veterans; people who work in certain industries, such as mining and construction (6); and people living in rural areas (7).
Some medications and hormonal conditions can also cause or exacerbate suicidal thoughts. People struggling with suicidal ideation should talk to a health care professional who can review and assess their medical history. An adjustment to prescription medicine, or trying a new prescription drug, can have a large impact on a person’s state of mind.

How to Help Someone Who Is Suicidal

Helping a friend or loved one who's suicidal can be daunting. Often people worry that talking about suicide will put the thought in their friend’s mind, making them more likely to harm themselves. However, it’s impossible to help without knowing what’s wrong, and that starts with open and honest communication.

  • Start by asking, “Do you want to end your life soon? Do you have a plan for ending your life?” If a person has a plan for ending their life, consider it an emergency and ensure that person is not left alone. Reach out for professional help immediately, including emergency services if required.
  • People who want to end their life but don’t have a plan still need help. The first step is listening to their problems. Take these issues seriously; listening shows the suicidal person they’re not alone and have support around them. Minimizing or dismissing problems can make someone feel more worthless for being unable to cope.
  • Provide reassurance by telling them that hope and help are available. Remind them that they don’t have to act on these thoughts. Concerned friends can encourage self-help and support strategies. Ask what’s helped them in the past and what other support is available for them. Help them access these supports.

Counselors who use cognitive behavioral therapy recommend a hope box or hope kit (8). This contains reminders of things that have given a person hope in the past that can provide reassurance during times of crisis. It’s also good practice to make a safety plan that lists triggers, signs to watch out for, and who the person can reach out to when in distress (9).
Finally, connect the person with professional support. Although they can offer help, most people supporting a loved one through suicidal feelings aren’t counselors. A professional has the skills and knowledge to reduce the risk of suicide. It can be difficult for someone struggling with suicide to find the motivation to get mental health support. Making the appointment and accompanying them can ensure they get the assistance they need.

How to Cope With Thoughts of Suicide

There are some expert-recommended ways to help people cope with thoughts of suicide. The most important step is to promise not to make a decision today. Choosing not to do anything drastic for at least 24 hours provides distance between thoughts and actions.
Other tips include:

  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Remove things from the environment that can be used to cause harm
  • Go to a safe place
  • Ask a friend or loved one for help
  • Call the suicide hotline at 988 for support

How to Overcome Suicide Ideation

Suicidal ideation is the formal term for thinking about suicide. There are two types of suicidal ideation: active and passive. Active suicidal thoughts are when a person intends to harm themselves. It may include plans or a method to carry out the idea. Someone with passive suicidal thoughts doesn’t have a plan or intention to harm themselves. However, they still wish to be dead and may have thoughts such as “I wish I could go to sleep and not wake up.”
Active and passive suicidal ideation can have continuing impacts on mental health and should be treated. The most important step is talking to a professional who can help treat mental health problems with therapy, medications, or other strategies.

Other tips to help prevent suicidal thoughts include:

  • Practice self-care through a healthy diet, exercise, and sleep habits
  • Identify and avoid high-risk triggers and situations
  • Keep a routine
  • Do things that bring joy
  • Think of personal goals
  • Take prescription medications as directed
  • Make connections with friends, family, and the community

Above all, remember that there is help available. Call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for free and confidential support. The hotline is open 24/7.