The first time I remember thinking about suicide was when I was 12 years old. I was in a travel basketball league, and the team was on a school bus headed to an away game. Not being close friends with many other girls on the team, I was in a seat by myself away from the group. I was laying down, headphones in, staring at the roof of the bus, and I felt a loneliness unlike anything I had ever experienced before. My mind was heavy with the feeling of profound isolation, and I thought, “I wish I were dead.”
Throughout my teenage years, that same thought would repeat itself over and over. Often, it was much worse. “I wish I were dead” became “I think I’ll sneak that bottle of pills out of my mom’s cabinet and take them all” or “I think I’ll cut my wrists while I’m home alone this afternoon.” I thought of walking into the ocean and swimming as far out and down as I could until there was no hope of returning to the surface.
I thought this was normal. I thought every other kid was having these same, extremely vivid thoughts about their own death. High school was tough; we all wanted to die, right?
By my second year of college, my as-of-yet undiagnosed depression had become an absolute monster, and it was causing me immense pain. It was disrupting my relationships with others, leading me to dangerous levels of alcohol abuse, and I was engaging in self harm to get through it all. A few friends convinced me to see one of our college’s on-campus therapists. I was sitting in the lobby, waiting for my first appointment, when I saw a pamphlet bearing the headline, “Suicidal thoughts are not normal.” I’ve never forgotten this; the concept was an absolute revelation for me.
Suicidal thoughts are not something everyone experiences. My friends and family members who do not struggle with depression and anxiety report sometimes thinking, in moments of severe stress or heartache, that they wish they would just die so they wouldn’t have to deal with it. Those thoughts are not recurring, are never really specific, and they are not approaching anything resembling a continuous mindset. My friends and family who do live with mental illness report either periodic spikes or prolonged intervals of very real thoughts about suicide. They think about how, when, and where they might take action on these thoughts. They can picture it, and it is comforting in a terrible way. When all feels hopeless, they can imagine a way out.
The latter of these two is the far more dangerous one. When mental health quizzes, internet searches, or therapists ask you if you have a “plan” for dying by suicide, what they are specifically asking is whether you are visualizing your own death in a tangible way. Therapy is a good idea for any type of suicidal thoughts, but it is especially important that you get help if you are thinking through any sort of specific means.
To this day, I do still have phases when I experience suicidal ideation with a plan. I know now that this is not something to be ignored, rationalized, or treated lightly, and I immediately contact my therapist and/or a trusted friend or family member for support when it happens. It’s important to develop a support network, at least one of whom should definitely be a mental health professional, and to be brave enough to call upon them when you need. You should not have to endure suicidal thoughts alone. You deserve to feel safe and supported.
*Please note that I write from my personal experience. I am not a doctor, so I am not qualified to give medical advice. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts of any kind, please seek help from a professional.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255