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Understanding Suicidal Crises

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Helping a suicidal person demands your attention and compassion and can easily end up being a very stressful process. If you've never felt suicidal before yourself, part of what is stressful about the process is the fact that it is truly difficult to relate to these thoughts and feelings. It can be quite difficult to understand how someone can seemingly overreact so dramatically to problems that you might consider solvable. If that is the case for you, please read on as the following sections may help you better understand what is happening.

What is going on in the mind of a suicidal person during a suicidal crisis?

A suicidal crisis is a temporary state that occurs in response to overwhelming stress, and which is associated with seemingly unbearable and unendurable emotional and/or physical pain. This pain is perceived by the suicidal person as being so severe, permanent and all encompassing that there is no practical solution to resolving it other than suicide.

Even though the stresses endured by suicidal people seem overwhelming, these problems are generally not truly unsolvable or permanently horrible. They just seem that way to the individual during the crisis. In general, suicidal people are overwhelmed, and their thinking style can be described as negatively biased, intensely self-focused, and irrational. They are not easily able to rationally evaluate their problems and put them into proper perspective. They are too close to the circumstances that have provoked their suicidal crisis and cannot see them objectively from a distance as a third party observer might. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, alienation, anger, rage and depression are common. Homicidal feelings may intermingle with suicidal feelings if there is a sense that someone has deliberately caused harm.

Depression is the number one cause of suicide. You may hear suicidal people talk about having the following kinds of depressive thoughts:

  • Hopelessness:
    • A sense that things will never get better ever again
    • A feeling of inability or lack of motivation to change the situation
    • A belief that your emotional pain is permanent or too much to bear
  • A sense of personal worthlessness, self-hatred or self-loathing
  • A sense that all the meaning has been removed from life
  • A sense that suicide is the only way to make the problems/stressors stop (founded upon the utter sense of hopelessness described above)

People become suicidal because they cannot or do not appreciate, or do not know about (i.e., have never learned) effective ways to cope with the stressful circumstances they are experiencing. Suicide can thus be prevented, to some extent, when suicidal people can be helped to expand and enhance their coping skills. Suicidal people cannot do this work on their own, however, because, by definition, they lack perspective on their problems, and as a result have already concluded that suicide is the only means of relief available to them.