I Had Passive Suicidal Ideation. Here’s What Everyone Should Know
Life has hardly been easy lately. COVID-19 has catapulted even the mentally healthiest among us into fear or anxiety, and some warn that a global mental health crisis is looming. I consider it a gift, then, that it’s been a long time since I thought about not wanting to live.
Passive suicidal ideation — thinking about, but not planning, one’s own death — became a familiar coping mechanism between my late teens, and it persisted into my late twenties.
I’ve never actively wanted to die. Most days, I enjoyed my life. I was invested in my plans and looked forward to the future.
But every now and then, when things were particularly difficult, I wanted to close my eyes and disappear.
Thinking about no longer existing was like an emotional reflex, something I sometimes defaulted to when faced with internal pain.
I spoke with experts and delved into my own experience with passive suicidal ideation.
What is passive suicidal ideation?
Do passively suicidal thoughts require treatment?
The short answer is yes. Like most psychological phenomena, passive ideation can occur on a spectrum, ranging from indifference towards being alive to questioning one’s existence to a gnawing feeling that life isn’t worth living.
The wish to die doesn’t inexorably mean you’re going to end your life.
But there is evidence that even fleeting and seemingly innocuous thoughts can bea risk factor for suicidal behavior.
A lack of therapeutic intervention, therefore, can be risky, Reidenberg says. People who endure the persistent hum of passive ideation may believe that they’re able to manage the problem on their own, that they’ll never really act on it, or that it will eventually go away. But these thoughts can evolve into something life-threatening.
“Clinical anecdotes suggest that passive suicidal thoughts can turn into active plans,” Overholser says. “If a person has spent time thinking about their own death and then a distressing event happens, they may begin to feel they have no choice but to end their own life.”
What keeps people with passive suicidal ideation from seeking help?
People might be unsure about how to describe their thoughts. They may downplay their severity, or worry about the stigma their admission could face.
In my own experience, the idea that I wasn’t in any immediate physical danger caused me to remain silent for a long time. I thought what I was going through was, essentially, “just a feeling”.
“We need to do a better job of recognizing the warning signs of suicide and passive ideation is included in that,”Reidenberg says. “Anyone who expresses such thoughts needs to be heard by others and to reach out for help.”
How can I help loved ones with passive suicidal ideation?
“Many family members and friends are reluctant to discuss suicide risk openly with a troubled friend,”acknowledges Overholser. “These thoughts and feelings can become ‘bottled up.’ It can be helpful to allow the distressed person to talk, as it gives them an opportunity to hear how concerning these ideas seem, to themselves and to others.”
Before reaching out to a friend about suicidal thoughts, make sure you’re in a mentally healthy place yourself. “It is difficult to help others if you are in significant distress. Make sure you are engaging in self-care strategies,” Neda Gould, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins, told Refinery29 in a previous interview.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.