Coping with Thoughts of Suicide

More than 40,000 people die by suicide each year in the United States. Millions more struggle with thoughts of suicide according to a September 2016 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

A look at the numbers:

  • Nearly 10 million U.S. adults (4 percent) had serous thoughts of suicide in the past year.
  • Rates of suicidal thoughts varied by age:
    • Young adults, age 18 to 25: 8.3 percent.
    • Adults age 40 to 54: 3.5 percent.
    • Adults 65 and older: 1.8 percent.
  • More than one quarter of adults (28.6 percent) who experienced a major depressive episode in the past year had serious thoughts of suicide.
  • Non-fatal suicide attempts result in more than 700,000 emergency room visits each year.

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) wanted to better understand how people cope with these distressing thoughts. DBSA conducted an informal, anonymous online survey of its constituents in 2013. The survey looked at where people turn for help with thoughts of suicide and what resources are most helpful.

The most commonly used sources of support were mental health professionals, family members and peers. Among the sources of support identified as most helpful were:

  • Talking to a therapist or counselor
  • Talking to a psychiatrist
  • Attending a support group
  • Going online for peer support
  • Talking to peers

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While more than 80 percent of the respondents felt talking with mental health professionals was helpful, more than half reported being reluctant to talk with health care providers about suicidal thoughts. According to previous research, only half of people who experience suicidal thoughts receive care from a mental health professional.

Peer support services* were considered very helpful by survey participants; however, they had relatively low use. This represents a missed opportunity, according to the survey authors. “Increasing awareness and availability of organized peer support resources could have significant benefit for people who experience suicidal thoughts,” the study authors noted.

A variety of self-care strategies were used by the vast majority of survey respondents. Spiritual practices, such as meditation, prayer and other personal spiritual practices were identified as particularly helpful. Experience with emergency rooms and crisis lines and talking with clergy were used less frequently and perceptions of helpfulness were more mixed.

Among the self-care strategies identified as most helpful were:

  • Exercising
  • Doing things to stay busy
  • Doing things with other people
  • Turning to prayer, meditation or spiritual practices
  • Watching films, TV or other entertainment

More than half of respondents had turned to alcohol or street drugs to cope with suicidal thoughts. However, among those, more than two-thirds found them to be not helpful or harmful.


  1. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Suicidal Thoughts and Behavior among Adults: Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, Sept. 2016
  2. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WISQARS (Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System),
  3. Ahmedani BK, et al. Suicide thoughts and attempts and psychiatric treatment utilization: information prevention strategies Psychiatric Services, 63:186-189, 2012
  4. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA). Getting Help for Suicidal Thoughts Survey, Summary Report: April

*Peer supporters, or peer specialists, are people who use their experience of recovery from mental health disorders to support others in recovery. They often have formal training and help others by teaching skills, modeling recovery and sharing their knowledge.

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