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How did you get to this suicidal place?

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

Suicide can be thought of as an extreme method of coping that some people choose when faced with circumstances that are overwhelming their ability to function. It may seem odd to characterize suicide as a coping method. Coping is usually thought of as an adaptive behavior that provides a positive outcome. Technically speaking, though, coping is simply a collection of potential behaviors that can be used to reduce stress. The specific behaviors we choose are not necessarily positive, and can actually cause harm. For instance, drinking excessively, working too much, and ignoring our problems are all ways to (at least temporarily) distract ourselves from stress, and are therefore "coping" behaviors. However, they are not healthy or adaptive in the long run. Suicide is an extreme example of harmful coping behavior.

3D Figure leaning on question markAs a coping mechanism, suicide is generally a method of last resort. Suicidal people have come to believe (often mistakenly, but firmly nevertheless) that suicide represents their only hope of escape from an overwhelming, chronic and negative situation. Suicidal people choose death because they cannot or do not appreciate, or do not know about (i.e., never learned) alternative coping methods. Suicide can 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 because, by definition, they have already concluded that suicide is the only means of relief currently available to them. Instead, assistance from other people is often necessary. First, they can interrupt and disarm any active suicide attempts and defuse the danger of the immediate suicidal crisis. Then they can help expand the suicidal person's perspective and access to coping resources through teaching. If you are feeling acutely suicidal, the smartest and best thing you can do is to seek help from mental health or health professionals.

The circumstances that have led you to feel suicidal are probably a combination of several different factors. We review risk factors and potential suicide triggers in our introductory article (click here for more information). For right now, know that there is no one reason why someone becomes suicidal. It's probably a combination of biology and genetics. You may have inherited a tendency to develop a mental illness and/or a tendency to react poorly to stress. There are psychological factors involved. For example, you may tend to think about yourself and your surroundings in a negative way. There are also social factors, such as you may have experienced a traumatic event, or you simply cannot deal with a stressful event (a stressor) or series of stressors that have pushed you to the breaking point.

Because people are different, they are affected differently by stress. So, what is stressful to one person may not bother another. What is most important right now is that something (or multiple somethings) is/are stressful to YOU. Obviously, these issues are very important to you personally if they have pushed you to feel suicidal.

Here is yet another good reason to seek help from a mental health professional for your suicidal feelings and thoughts. This article that you are reading has tips for dealing with your thoughts and feelings, but they are not designed to fit you personally. A trained clinician can work with you to create a tailored, or customized plan you can use to help combat the unique set of stressors that have triggered your suicidal crisis.

As we discuss in our introductory article, the most frequent stressful event leading up to suicide today is mental illness, which is estimated to account for about 90% of all suicides. Depression is the most common mental illness in people who commit suicide. The great news is that depression and most other forms of mental illness are treatable conditions. (visit our depression topic center for more information about treating depression.) We now have a wonderful variety of psychotherapies and medications available to help you if you are dealing with depression or other forms of mental illness. These treatments are not really something that can be done in a self-help way, however. They require the assistance of one or more trained mental health clinicians to implement, which is yet another reason why it is a good idea for suicidal people to seek professional help.