Suicide Facts: What Causes Suicidal Thoughts?

Facts on Suicidal Thoughts

If you or someone you know is considering suicide and are unsure how to deal with it, call a suicide hotline, like 1-800-SUICIDE, to get help.

Suicidal thoughts are troubling, especially when accompanied by depression, other mental illnesses, alcohol or substance abuse, or plans for suicide. This situation demands immediate evaluation. These thoughts may indicate the presence of a serious psychological disorder.

The critical distinction is between a person's thoughts regarding death and suicide and actually feeling suicidal. When doctors hear that someone wants to die, they refer to these thoughts as suicidal ideation and divide them into two categories.

  • Suicidal ideation can be active and involve a current desire and plan to die.
  • Suicidal ideation can be passive, involving a desire to die but without a plan to bring about one's death.

If a person has an actual desire to die (in either form of suicidal ideation), he or she must seek immediate medical attention.

Causes of Suicidal Thoughts

Many people experience suicidal thoughts at some time in their lives. Individuals with such thoughts may wonder if they are normal.

  • In otherwise healthy people, such thoughts are often brought about by a sudden, unexpected, and usually negative change in life circumstances.
  • Sleep deprivation that can be the result of having a very late bedtime or being unable to go to sleep is just one lifestyle issue that can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
  • Suicidal ideation may be part of many mental illnesses, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and drug or alcohol abuse.
  • Examples of illegal drugs that may produce suicidal thoughts include marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, phencyclidine (PCP), and LSD.
  • Some anxiety disorders, like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), can also produce suicidal thoughts.
  • Strong evidence exists that depression and many other forms of mental illness can be passed from parent to child and that a tendency toward suicidal ideation and suicide is likewise inherited.
  • People who have a history of previous suicide threats or attempts are at higher risk of attempting suicide in the future.
  • In rare instances, suicidal thoughts may be associated with medication side effects, as with some asthma medication (for example, Singulair), antiseizure medications, antidepressants (including Prozac, Paxil), or certain medications that treat the human immunodeficiency virus (such as etravirine).
  • The risk of developing suicidal thoughts in reaction to medications is thought to be higher in children and teens, although still uncommon, compared to adults.

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Medically reviewed by Marina Katz, MD; American Board of Psychiatry & Neurology


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