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Suicide is often thought of in black and white terms, but that’s not always the case.

Thinking of people as either ‘suicidal’ or ‘not suicidal’ can be an oversimplification.

That’s because the realities of suicide are a lot more complex than you may realize. Suicidal ideation exists on a spectrum. This spectrum ranges from wanting to be dead (passive suicidal ideation) to making plans to commit suicide (active suicidal ideation).

As a society, we tend only to focus on the latter. But when we don’t talk about passive suicidal ideation, we leave many people out of the conversation.

If you struggle with passive suicidal ideation, you may not think your problems are “real” enough to matter. On the other hand, you may also worry about setting off people’s alarm bells.

It’s these misconceptions that leave many people too afraid or ashamed to speak out. In order to help people on all ends of the spectrum, we must be willing to go beyond our black-and-white understanding of suicide.

Passive Suicidal Ideation

What is passive suicidal ideation?

Passive suicidal ideation is characterized by a desire to be dead without having any active plans to end your life. It’s a concept that doesn’t fit neatly into people’s understanding of suicide.

But passive suicidal ideation isn’t any less “real” or debilitating simply because it’s harder to define.

It is, in fact, possible to wish you were dead and not want to take any steps to end your life. It’s okay to hold these two opposing truths at once. Living in this gray area does not make your experience any less valid.

Passive suicidal ideation can look like:

  • An indifference to being alive
  • Wishing for an external factor (such as cancer, a car crash, or dying in your sleep) to take the matter out of your hands
  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness, numbness, or emptiness
  • Recurring thoughts of death

Active Suicidal Ideation

What’s the difference between passive and active suicidal ideation? 

Suicidal thoughts associated with active ideation are more persistent and severe. It also generally involves some sort of action, for example:

  • Researching ways to commit suicide
  • Making plans on how, when, and where to commit suicide
  • Giving away possessions
  • Saying goodbye to loved ones
  • Purchasing materials to carry out your plan

Signs of passive ideation are more subtle and harder to spot. As we’ve mentioned, people suffering from passive suicidal ideation are often overlooked. That’s why it’s important to make space for a broader understanding of suicide.

Passive Suicidal Ideation

Who is at risk for passive suicidal ideation? 

Based on evidence from researchers in the field, symptoms that underly passive suicidal ideation can include:

  • Undiagnosed depression
  • Feelings of worthlessness & low self-esteem
  • Being rejected
  • Loneliness or social isolation

Passive suicidal ideation is hard to define, which makes it hard to track and research. As a result, the risk factors and magnitude of the issue are not well known.

However, considering that around 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide in 2019, passive suicidal ideation may be more prevalent than people believe.

Statistics about suicide attempts only paint a fraction of the picture of those suffering from suicidal thoughts. The fact that people do not talk about passive ideation does not make it any less real.

Will my passive suicidal ideation turn active?

There are many people (more than we are aware of) who learn to live and cope with chronic passive suicidal ideation. Even if the risk of suicide is lower for passively suicidal individuals, the risk is not 0.

Passive suicidal ideation has its ebb and flows, much like other mental health issues. As such, the line between thinking about dying versus actually doing it is one that can shift with time and circumstances.

Events that can trigger active suicidal ideation include:

  • A particularly bad day, week, or month
  • Conflict with loved ones
  • Transition periods
  • A decline in physical health
  • A decline in mental health

Do I need to seek treatment for passive suicidal ideation? 

Thoughts of suicide, however fleeting, should not be dismissed. Even if you have no intention of acting on your desires, it’s impossible to predict life’s stressors. Suicidal thoughts can change in frequency and intensity without warning.

If active suicidal ideation is like standing on the brink of a cliff, passive suicidal ideation is like being on the same plane, just farther behind. The risk is still there, even if it is not as imminent.

Seeking treatment is often the best way to keep your suicidal thoughts in check. It can be hard to manage passive suicidal ideation on your own – and you shouldn’t have to. Speaking to a licensed professional can help you avoid crossing into dangerous territory.

Suicidal Ideation

What are the dangers of staying silent about passive suicidal ideation? 

Excluding passive suicidal ideation in our discussions of suicide only pushes it further into the shadows. It makes it harder for those suffering to seek help.

If you’re someone who struggles with passive suicidal ideation, you may dismiss the severity of your thoughts. People who are passively suicidal often falsely believe:

  • If they haven’t acted upon their desires yet, they never will
  • Their problem is not severe enough to seek help
  • This is a phase and their feelings will get better on their own

Intervention is often geared toward individuals who are on the brink of suicide. But buying into this narrow view about who deserves treatment or what warrants intervention is a losing game.

Suicidal ideation, in all of its forms, deserves compassion and support. We need to stop thinking about passive suicidal ideation only in the context of active suicidal ideation.

Otherwise, we risk letting people who exist on different parts of the spectrum fall through the cracks.

How can I support loved ones who experience passive suicidal ideation?

The antidote to stigma and shame is openness and compassion. Creating a safe space for loved ones to talk openly about their mental health challenges is the best thing you can do.

It can be extremely difficult for a friend or family member to open up about their suicidal thoughts. So if they confide in you, remember to meet them with love and acceptance. Knowing the common misconceptions about passive suicidal ideation can also help you validate and reaffirm their experience.

Talking to a loved one is not a replacement for treatment. Supporting your loved ones also involves encouraging them to seek help and directing them to the correct resources.

Suicidal Ideation

Next steps

If you want to discuss seeking therapy to manage your suicidal ideation, we are here to help. Contact us today for a free consultation.


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