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Defining Suicide

Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. Updated: Jul 25th 2016

The term suicide describes the act of taking one's own life.  There are various kinds of suicide, so our first task is to clarify our use of the term.  Within this article, we are referring to suicide in the conventional sense, in which someone plans out or acts upon self-destructive thoughts and feelings, often while they are experiencing overwhelming stress. “Assisted suicide” occurs when a physician helps a terminally ill person to die, avoiding an imminent, inevitable and potentially painful decline.  Our current discussion of suicide does not address assisted suicide. 

suicide word collageThe intent of suicidal behavior, whether consciously or unconsciously motivated, is to permanently end one's life.  Truly suicidal acts are sometimes called, "gestures." These need to be distinguished from other self-harming, self-injurious, or parasuicidal acts and gestures which are also deliberate, but not intended to cause death.  Typical self-injurious acts include cutting or burning oneself.  The intention behind these behaviors is to cause intense sensation, pain and damage. They are not intended to end one's life.  Self-injurious behaviors may lead to accidental suicide if they are taken too far, but their initial intent and goal are not suicidal. 

Though self-injurious behavior is not suicidal behavior, it isn't exactly healthy behavior either.  If you engage in or have the urge to engage in self-injurious behavior it is also important that you seek mental health care.  Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is an effective and now widely available form of psychotherapy. DBT helps people who injure themselves learn and practice alternative and safe means of coping with life stresses. By doing so, it reduces their self-harming tendencies.  Various medications, prescribed by a psychiatrist, can also be helpful in reducing the need to act out self-harming impulses.

Suicidal feelings and impulses sometimes co-occur with homicidal (i.e., murderous) feelings and impulses. Some people who feel that life is not worth living also come to feel that others' lives should not continue either.  Such people may then decide to end the lives of other people prior to or along with killing themselves.  Motivations behind suicide-homicide events can include a desire to punish some person (or people), or gain revenge over a those who have caused intolerable pain to the suicidal individual.  Such events may also be motivated by religious beliefs or by military orders.  Some examples of suicide-homicide include: suicide bombings, joint suicide, cult suicide, school or workplace massacres followed by suicide, or situations where people kill their families and then kill themselves. We aren't going to talk further about suicide-homicide events in this center.  However, if you are experiencing both suicidal and homicidal impulses, for the safety of yourself and others around you, it is important that you get help for yourself as soon as possible so that these impulses can be properly and safely addressed. 

Suicidal Ideation

Suicidal ideation is a term used by mental health professions to describe suicidal thoughts and feelings (without suicidal actions).  For example, people experiencing suicidal ideation commonly report that they feel worthless, that life is not worth living, and that the world would be better off without them.  The presence of suicidal ideation, happening without any plans to act out actual suicide, is on the low/less-dangerous end of the suicide risk continuum.  The potential for someone engaging in suicide is still there, but the risk is not acute (i.e., immediate).

Even though suicidal ideation is considered less serious than actual suicide attempts, it can be a real cause for concern.  The fact that suicidal ideation is happening at all suggests a very real possibility that suicide could occur should circumstances become worse and stress levels mount.  Anyone who has suicidal ideation is at some risk of becoming actively suicidal.

Once suicidal ideation has become established, it can become a "cognitive habit." This is something that reappears periodically and spontaneously during times of stress as an automatic and negative, dysfunctional style of thinking.  These thinking styles are especially common in people who are currently depressed or who are recovering from a previous period of depression.  The continuing presence of such styles of thinking in a person who has recovered from depression can be a risk factor for further depression and for suicidal gestures.

Suicidal Gestures

Suicidal ideation is only dangerous to the extent that it motivates suicidal planning and actions.  Moving from thinking about suicide to considering a specific suicidal plan represents an increase in the level of suicide-danger risk. The risk is there no matter whether the plans made are concrete or vague; organized, or random.  When suicidal actions occur, the level of suicide-danger risk increases.

Actual attempts to kill yourself are labeled "suicidal gestures" or "suicide attempts" by mental health professionals, no matter how ineffective those attempts may ultimately be.  Suicidal gestures may be acted out with full lethal intent. They may also be acted out half-heartedly, more as a means of communicating the depths of your pain to others around you than an actual effort to end your life.  Regardless of the intent and degree of seriousness that motivates them, suicidal gestures are often dangerous events.  Even ambivalent, half-hearted suicidal gestures can result in a completed suicide.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Bad luck - - Jan 17th 2015

My life isn't all rainbows..I've gone through a lot of things ...thinking about it makes me feel like if I disappear everybody's lives will be relieve even my daughters. I'm just a burden. God is punishing me , but I'm not brave enough to take my life away. I just want this hurt that I have inside to go away. 

I'm closer to the end than i thought - - Oct 27th 2014

Its going to hurt my family. That is what kept me from doing this for so long. Its time for me to go. I do wish you all peace and hope you dont end up like me. Goodbye. 

So Hard To Say - - Jul 3rd 2014
If one is physically healthy with no disease, then why would suicide even cross ones mind? Its so much easier to deal with mental health issues than a chronic or terminal illness where one lingers waiting for the end while watching others who are vibrant and healthy.

Hard times.. - - Jun 3rd 2014

Theirs time when things goes wrong were ou want to kill yourself, but doing that is bad, but in one way to solve this is, you always want to think ur self, think what just happen, think whats going around you, and not to think of killing ur self, there are people out thier will cause to do things like that... but in the other hand there others that will and do care for you a lot, deeply in ur heart feel the beats with ur hands or mine and stare out in space and leting that out, think a new generation, foeget the old pass but if your still into that pass then think deep and find out to solve that probelm. i hope this helps for people out their and please forgive me if i make this worse for you am sorry be safe out their am here just to help    

Already dead anyways? - - Mar 29th 2014

When I get to thinking deeply I contemplate whether or not I'm dead already. the definition of death is to cease living. Is living a heart beat and blood flow or is it more than that a sense of self actualization and love to another? 

Since my girlfriend left me: for the past year I have done nothing but sleep. I find it easier to not be conscious than to be awake and aware, isnt this what death would bring? I would get my wish of enternal sleep. Never have to wake up and say to myself "fuck why do I have to wake up, what's the fucking point?"

I'm a college student who for the last year has dramatically become more and more dead inside. Everything that made me ,me I have ceased doing, due to this relentless depression. my school work is crushing me, I have stopped exercising (exercise science major), I no longer care to socialize with anyone, even my family and I have grown so far apart. My friends and I don't speak to one another.  

I get out of class (when I go now, currently failing 4 out of 5 of my classes, had a 3.8 GPA before this semester) and then I sleep all day so I don't have to feel the pain of feeling alone. 

so, you tell me,  losing everything that makes you you and finding it easier to just sleep all day because dreams are the only place you don't feel pain. Is that really living? Or am I already dead? (I'm sure if anyone can relate it's the people reading this.)

Hard to care anymore - DNM - Jan 17th 2013

I used to be so happy and full of life growing up and then things went downhill in my teens... family problems, etc deeply affected me emotionally. I grasped for attention by doing stupid things, like many teens do, but I began to take things too far. I became to actually be depressed and suicidal. I tried to take my life a few years back and ended up in the hospital for 2 months and ever since then I do not feel the same. Everytime I go to bed, I find myself hoping I do not wake up. I've been drinking a lot lately... just hoping that I'll pass out and never have to care again. I feel so hopeless : ( It sucks seeing all my highschool friends having lives and travelling the world, while I can barely manage to get out of bed some days

suicide is my life :( - Tasha Swisher - Jan 15th 2013

for the past few years i have thought about killing my self almost everyday and i have cut myself and i have o.d.ed 2 times i kno its not smart but when ur at that point in life it looks alot better than living wit wats botherng you

Suicide - Onica Gaotime - Dec 28th 2012

My 11 year old, gorgeous boy accidentally hanged himself in 2002. That left a hole in my heart, sometimes I'm fine and somedays I feel like I failed him and maybe I should have loved him more than I did or maybe said something about the danger of the play he was trying but in the process died!

Big Black Pit!!!!! - - Dec 18th 2012

In a space of 3 months my mum died (suicide) and then my husband collapsed and died. Ifeel totally alone and trapped. I can't do the same as my mum to my kids as their dad is gone. I want the pain to end. I want to die, pray every night that by morning I am dead.

suicide thoughts - Josh - Nov 23rd 2012

I  been suicidal for years. i wonder if everyone feels so low and out of control at times. It get hard to even look up at times. I cry out to God, and then realize I might be lost again, if I can't trust him anymore. It's scary to cross over when you think you might go to hell for unforgiveness, even if its against your own self. 

would the suicide be the answer? - - Nov 23rd 2012

i need help, i´m not a suicidel person, however i have think about it many times... well, maybe  i am suicidel person... i need help, right away... 

rock bottom - - Oct 10th 2010

my wife wants a divorce. i came close to suicide and passed by this site. I tested the knot and it failed. I can't even trust that I can commit suicide successfully. I'm going to see a doctor and get some happy pills maybe. what a messed up world this is. I wish I was dead.

Hey! - Kara - Sep 29th 2010

Thank you, for making the time to make this website i learned lot from this website. i am currently making a Suicide project in health and this website was helpful.

it's not the answer - - Sep 14th 2008

suicide is not the answer to your problem...

Hindu view on suicide - EARTH - Jan 21st 2008

Hindu view on suicide

Hinduism does not approve suicide. Hindus believe that human life is very precious, which is attainted after after hundreds and thousands of births and provides an unique opportunity to each individual to make a quantum jump into higher planes of existence or attain immortality. Even gods and other celestial beings do not have this opportunity unless they come down to earth and take birth as human beings. 

- - Jan 5th 2008

I tried to kill myself seven months ago and I cant stop the thinking of this would be a better place without me. help


thanks - - Nov 15th 2007
thanks, Im accually doing a school project for health, and from your site I learned alot

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