What Being Suicidal is Really Like

With how prevalent mental health has become in the last few years, suicide rates are at an all-time high. Unfortunately, this comes with a misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what it is really like to feel suicidal.

It’s a common trend that people who die by suicide are ones that hide their issues the most. You always hear, “I had no idea they were suffering.” or “They were always so happy and outgoing.” or “I just saw them last week and they seemed fine.”

Unfortunately, what most resources teach are to look for:

  • A sudden withdraw in social interactions
  • Giving away personal belongings
  • Talking about death or despair
  • Showing dangerous or self-harming behavior

Don’t get me wrong, these are definitely things to look out for. But in my experience as a retired therapist, someone who has been suicidal, and someone who has lost a close friend to suicide… I can confidently say this above list is the minority of people struggling.

In reality, most people who struggle feel so worthless that even those closest to them don’t know how they feel.

Why is this? Because people struggling with suicidal ideations tend to feel like:

  • A burden
  • Worthless
  • Annoying
  • No one cares

And unfortunately, that’s because their brain is sick. So many people care, but there is nothing you say that will have a long-term impact on the way a suicidal person thinks.

This is because depression alters the brain.

This 2018 study shows that depression causes:

  • Gray matter of the brain (the outer layer of brain) to be reduced
  • Neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) stop firing correctly
  • Elevated brain inflammation happens due to higher levels of translocator proteins

Which means that the brain is impaired and can no longer process information or emotions the way people without these impairments can.

So, what does being suicidal actually look like?

I have experienced suicidal ideations for as long as I can remember. Having dealt with some traumatic events and being filled with negative self-talk from the beginning, one of my therapists liked to say that my brain preferred being suicidal.

Hear me out… I was in such a bad mental state for so long that my brain formed permanent pathways that led to these thoughts being a form of comfort.

So, whenever something went wrong, the first things I would say to myself were “it would be easier for everyone if you weren’t around.” or “How much better would it be if I just weren’t here anymore?” or “You’re such a failure, you don’t deserve to be around anymore.”

These escape thoughts made the pain easier to handle. They were a reminder there was a way out of being trapped in constant mental torture.

That might not make sense to most people, but the ones who deal with suicidal ideations understand the comfort that comes with that statement.

As the depression, trauma, and other symptoms get worse, these escape thoughts become stronger. They’re like a snowball. Before you know it, these thoughts are consuming your every waking moment and become the source of your pain.

A typical lifecycle of suicidal thoughts:
  1. Getting triggered and the pain starts to set in
  2. Escape thoughts creep into your mind
  3. Pain is made worse by the escape thoughts
  4. Escape thoughts get stronger and turn into a very convincing voice
  5. Pain now becomes fear because you start to lose sight of what’s real and what’s the voice
  6. Being scared of yourself, feeling the pain, not being able to trust your mind, and trying to decipher what’s real and what isn’t
  7. Becoming numb, distracting your mind, wishing the pain would go away

People who are suicidal do not want to kill themselves. They want to kill the thing that is taking over their mind.

Sarah Banwart, MSW

Why don’t you reach out for help?

A person who struggles with suicidal ideations has been taken over by the voice in their mind. They think so little of themselves that they don’t even believe they’re worthy of being noticed. They are completely convinced that no one cares about them. If they do care, they don’t want to burden them.

Typically, this stems from a few things:

  1. Fear of being dismissed or told their pain doesn’t make sense
  2. Being so used to the pain and not realizing how bad it has gotten
  3. Fear of being abandoned by friends and family if they tell them what’s really going on
  4. They are embarrassed to ask for help and feel like their pain isn’t worth talking about

But really, they’re embarrassed to ask for help because they don’t believe what’s causing them pain is bad enough to justify what they’re feeling. They feel like the problems are so small that people will laugh at them and tell them to suck it up.

But why? Because they are so used to feeling that level of pain that their body has adjusted their threshold and the pain they’re feeling has become minimal. Meaning that what everyone else would consider severe mental distress and needing immediate care, feels like nothing to them anymore.

Have you ever put up with something so upsetting for so long that it is no longer upsetting to you? That is what it’s like to be suicidal. The emotions that once upset you are no longer upsetting. Just like building up a tolerance for alcohol, eventually it stops bothering you. Then before you know it, your tolerance has gotten so severe that it is doing damage without you even realizing it.

How to help someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts?

When a loved one tells you that they wish they weren’t here anymore or that they don’t want to be alive any longer, it can be very alarming.

This is not the time to panic. This is not about you.

It is scary and uncomfortable telling someone these deep dark thoughts and feelings. The last thing they want is to feel like you are freaking out on them. This topic of conversation needs to be handled strategically and with care. That being said, how do you respond in a way that will encourage them to keep talking and not shut down?

If someone you love tells you they feel like they don’t deserve to be alive anymore, the best possible response you can have is to say something along the lines of, “You’ve been going through a lot lately. It makes sense you’re feeling like this, I just wish you could see how proud of you I am and how loved you are. Why do you feel like you don’t deserve to be alive anymore?”

The important thing to do is make sure that you validate their feelings and reassure them they’re doing the best they can. The second they feel invalidated, like they’ve upset you, or embarrassed for opening up, they’re going to shut down and it’ll be difficult to get them to open back up again.

The response they’re going to give to this question is either going to be “I don’t know”, silence, or a bunch of rambling that might not make sense to you. Don’t try to fill the silence, let them sit with that question for a minute. If they’re feeling comfortable enough to tell you, they’re ready to talk about it to some extent.

If they still don’t have an answer, you can try a different version of the open question.

  • I have had thoughts similar to this before. You aren’t alone. Can you tell me more about the thoughts you’re having lately?
  • These feelings aren’t your fault. Can you please tell me more about them?
  • I want to be here for you however you need me. What do you feel like you need right now?

What to do next?

Suicidal thoughts are something to take seriously but handle delicately.

Chances are after they have the chance to get everything off their chest, you’ll see them start to feel like their old self again.

Either way, that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear and everything is over. It’s time for you guys to put a plan in place for what to do next time this happens.

This can look like:

  • Keeping a journal and writing/drawing everything out.
  • Having a code word that lets you know they need a judgment free zone to speak in.
  • Getting them busy – idle minds breed bad thoughts. The more they’re distracted from these bad thoughts, the less of an impact they will have on your loved one.
  • Go for a walk or get some form of exercise – this is the only proven way to help mental health issues due to the hormones released while exercising that counteract the depressive/anxious feelings.
  • If under 18 and in therapy, telling their therapist about your conversation with them.
  • If over 18 and in therapy, encouraging them to talk to their therapist further about these feelings.
  • If not in therapy, getting into therapy to start developing healthy coping skills.

Most importantly, never stop checking up on them. They might not have anything to say or want to talk. They might even seem annoyed that you ask them so often. But they will never forget that you care. That will build deep trust, make them feel like they matter to someone, and let them know that when they’re ready to talk, you will always be there.

Mental health issues are scary for everyone.

If you feel like you or a loved one are in danger, call the suicide and crisis hotline at 988.

Please know that you do not have to be suicidal or in crisis to use this hotline. If you feel alone and need someone to talk to, that is more than enough reason to call this number. It is free of charge and available to call 24/7.

If you’re uncomfortable talking to someone on the phone, they also have a chat feature in the top righthand corner of their website.

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