It can be extremely difficult to understand and navigate a loved one’s suicidal impulses. Family members often wonder why their loved one can’t see how much they have to live for or why words of encouragement and hope don’t seem to get through to them.
Of course any person struggling with suicidal thoughts needs psychiatric treatment. Their impulses can be extremely powerful, and it can take time—in therapy and/or a residential treatment program—to learn how to manage these thoughts and emotions, as well as the underlying mental illness that surrounds them.
Nobody can fully understand what it’s like to battle suicidal impulses unless they have personally experienced it and know the pain and desperation of being in that place. With more education, though, you can develop a deeper, more empathetic understanding for what a friend, family member, or partner is going through….
Why the Impulse to End One’s Own Life
Why do some people want to take their own life? The American poet Anne Sexton, who struggled with mental illness throughout her life and eventually succumbed to suicide, often wrote about her struggles and suicidal impulses. In her poem “Wanting to Die,” she wrote,
“Suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.”
In therapy, patients can begin to unravel the “why” of their impulses. Psychiatrists and therapists can explain how the patient’s mental illness drives these impulses, but it takes time to learn strategies for managing them. Many patients must also rely on antidepressants and/or other medications to help them overcome these disturbing inclinations.
Don’t become discouraged if your words don’t seem to get through to your loved one. Their mental illness can be a barrier to those words, but your care and willingness to encourage them to seek treatment may be the best you can do for them until their condition is more stable.
What Is a Suicidal Impulse?
A suicidal impulse is a thought about killing yourself and is a symptom of a mental health disorder such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. While these urges may be temporary, they can also be powerful. People who are impulsive by nature may be more vulnerable to suicidal impulses if they’re suffering from a mental illness.
People who kill themselves often do so as a reactive measure to something stressful. That stress, of course, may be heightened (and often is) by their mental illness. As the stress dissipates, their impulse to commit suicide may also disappear, at least for a time. The impulsivity of the act is often dependent on whether the individual has a plan for committing the act. A person with a history of suicide attempts is at much greater risk for making additional attempts, which is why effective management of their condition is crucial to their continued wellbeing.
People who have a mental illness can take measures to try to distance themselves from stressful situations, but stress is difficult to eliminate— everyone experiences it. Therapists strive to help clients learn to manage their stress in healthier ways and to improve how they cope with emotional distress. When something stressful happens, they then have some strategies to help them keep suicidal urges at bay.
How People Describe the Experience
There is no one unifying experience that people are referring to when they describe what it’s like to experience suicidal thoughts and urges. One blogger said she was driving to a friend’s house one day when all of a sudden she had an impulse to drive off the road and crash her car.
Sometimes the feelings of loneliness and depression may seem so heavy and hard to shake free that a person may begin to think their friends and family would be better off without them. If a person has been experiencing symptoms of major depression like the inability to sleep at all, they may be in a place of such suffering that the idea of intentionally overdosing or dying by another means seems like the only exit and end to their debilitating pain.
Suicidal Impulses Are Temporary
Most patients don’t experience suicidal impulses perpetually. Often, their impulsive feelings come in waves triggered by stress or negative emotions like fear or sadness. As powerful as these tendencies can feel, they often dissipate. As they dissipate, family members are often relieved and may believe their words finally resonated with their loved one. However, the individual isn’t willing these impulses to occur again. They occur involuntarily as the result of mental illness. In other words, the person doesn’t choose to experience them. They can, however, learn ways to cope with them when they arise.
Fortunately, these impulses are temporary, which gives patients the opportunity to experience relief and to learn why they experience these feelings and what they can do to manage them. Ideally, families should continue to encourage their loved one to remain in treatment, even if they seem well. Many mental illnesses are long-term or permanent conditions. They can be managed but relapse is possible. That’s why ongoing maintenance is important for long-term recovery.
What Mental Health Disorders Are Most Commonly Associated with Suicidal Impulses?
Of the various psychiatric disorders associated with suicide, depression is the most common. Other disorders linked to suicide ideation include bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia, substance abuse disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety disorders. A person who has an anxiety disorder is at increased risk of attempting suicide. Having both anxiety and depression also increases the risk of a suicide attempt.
What Are the Signs That a Person with Suicidal Impulses Might Exhibit?
If you’re concerned that a loved one is suicidal, there are many different signs and symptoms that may emerge. Never ignore them. Some common signs and symptoms of suicidal thoughts might include:
- Talking about suicide (saying something like “I wish I wasn’t here anymore.”)
- Increasing the use of drugs and alcohol
- Withdrawing from others, preferring social isolation
- Appearing hopeless or feeling trapped
- Engaging in impulsive, risky behaviors
- Saying goodbye to family and friends
- Being preoccupied with death
- Obtaining a means for committing suicide (i.e. stockpiling drugs or purchasing a gun)
It’s a medical emergency when someone is contemplating suicide. It’s important to take these signs and symptoms seriously, even if the individual has never attempted to commit suicide before. Mental illness can be progressive, meaning, its symptoms can worsen, especially when their condition isn’t effectively managed.
What Do People Who Have Experienced Suicidal Impulses Say?
Suicidal impulses may be temporary, but when experiencing them, many people do make attempts to take their life. Afterward when the impulse is no longer there, at least temporarily, these individuals can often provide insights into what they were feeling and may even find it easier to talk about what they needed and currently need.
For example, some individuals have stated that they wanted to talk about their pain but they didn’t know how. Feeling trapped and alone with emotional pain without a healthy outlet like talking can trigger suicidal impulses. Others have said that they hope their loved ones don’t make them feel guilty for what they attempted because they truly felt like they had no other options. Some say they just didn’t want to feel alone.
Support for Patients and Families
It’s hard for patients and loved ones to understand suicide– to really understand the impulses and ideation that drive it. That’s not surprising as there isn’t just one type of suicidal person. A person may seem joyful or funny on the outside but may be struggling intensely on the inside. Others may behave erratically while others may seem very depressed.
Learning about suicide and your loved one’s diagnosis is an important first step to helping them manage their condition. At FHE Health, we treat many disorders that involve suicidal impulses. Our clinicians assist clients and families by providing therapy, education, and support groups.
People who have tried to commit suicide before are not doomed to repeat history. While they may be at increased risk of suicidal thoughts, they can also learn how to manage these impulses and successfully manage their mental health conditions– and it’s even easier for them when they have the support of family and friends.
Finally, remember that someone who threatens suicide needs emergency help. Don’t ignore the signs. Seek treatment right away.