The Spectrum of Suicide

We all have an image of what the word “suicide” looks like: desperation, in need of rescuing, maybe somebody crouched down or curled up and unable to move or speak. Suicidal thoughts can look like this. They can be all-consuming. They can feel like a cloud of impenetrable darkness.

But they can also look like a passing thought or an idle curiosity. They can come on a whim and leave just as quickly. They don’t always have weight to them. Sometimes they are just a wondering.

Suicidal thoughts are not always life-threatening.

Their presence demands attention, but they do not inherently indicate someone’s life will end.

They can look like apathy, not really caring about either life or death. They can feel like emptiness or nothingness, devoid of pleasure – but also devoid of pain.

They can be grounding. Thinking about suicide can be the only area in someone’s life that they have any remaining control over (think of cases of domestic violence or child abuse, genocide or generational poverty). For some, this control over whether they live or die is the very thing that is keeping them alive.

Suicidal thoughts can be chronic: the thoughts can be a constant vibration in the background of everyday life. Their presence can be comfortable or they can be uncomfortable. Suicide thoughts can also be impulsive, occurring on a whim, out of nowhere, with no prior history. They can occur in response to an intense situation, like a relationship ending or job loss. And they can exist anywhere in between, along a wide spectrum.

Just as there are multiple shades of every color, so there are multiple shades of suicidal thoughts. It is not a one-size-fits-all, black-and-white dichotomy. Suicidal thoughts can be dangerous – and they can also exist without needing rescue.

The consistent voice of people living with thoughts of suicide is that they don’t feel like they can talk to anyone about their thoughts, out of fear of being locked up in a psych ward against their will. Psych wards have their utility, but they can also be damaging: “risk of suicide [is] 100 times greater than average immediately after being released from a hospital.”

People don’t always need a psych ward, but people do always need a caring, attuned adult they can talk to, one who will listen openly and without judgment.

This is why it is important to ask if someone is thinking about suicide and encourage open dialogue. Do not make assumptions – even if your assumptions are made out of fear and all the care in the world. It can be scary to hear that our loved ones are considering suicide, and our loved ones need our presence. A non-judgmental, listening ear is often enough to calm down the intensity of the thoughts. You can help your loved one just by being with them, present and attuned. Listening is a powerful antidote.


If you’re hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can’t feel it—and you are worth your life.

You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don’t like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

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