“I dealt with [the feelings] in a very unhealthy and secretive way.”
Content warning: This article and video feature mentions of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
“I’ve been depressed my entire adult life … since I hit puberty basically,” says Tim O’Brien, mental health advocate and suicide survivor. “I’ve always been someone who has suicidal ideation. I’ve spent a lot of my life thinking about killing myself, and spent too much of last year attempting to do that.” (Learn more about Tim’s mental health journey here.)
Suicidal ideation, or planning or considering suicide, doesn’t always lead to a suicide attempt. However, certain risk factors can make someone more likely to attempt suicide, such as:
A family history of suicide
Access to firearms
Having a mental illness
A history of trauma or abuse
Experiencing a recent tragic event
For Tim, his worst year—during which he experienced nine suicide attempts—was a combination of both mental illness (depression) and a string of tragic events. “I had a really terrible breakup … and we had been living together, [so] I ended up losing my housing situation as a result of it,” says Tim. “I couldn’t afford to live where I was living. I couldn’t feed myself some days.”
Shawn O’Brien, Tim’s father, found out from Tim’s friends that his son wasn’t coping with the challenges well. “When I would be in the City and meet with his friends, they were concerned about Tim and his drinking because he would drink until blackout level,” says Shawn.
Tim’s friends were right to be concerned: Increased alcohol use is one of the biggest warning signs of suicide, according to the National Allicance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Other warning signs include aggressiveness, impulsivity, recklessness, mood swings, and withdrawal from loved ones.
Tim explains two reasons why he turned to alcohol: Not only was he trying to self-medicate and suppress his painful thoughts, but also to make himself “physically incapable of attempting suicide.” (This was statistically a risky game to play, since a third of completed suicides are done under the influence of alcohol, according to NAMI.)
In other words, Tim was actively trying not to die, even if he was dealing with his feelings in a way that was not the most productive or helpful. “I thought I would just white-knuckle my way through these feelings,” he says. “That’s a very unhealthy and unsustainable way of living.”
Today, he calls his depressive thoughts and suicidal ideations as “negative cognitive distortions,” which is a term from cognitive behavioral therapy that refers to the ways your mind can convince you of something that isn’t actually true. Cognitive distortions include mental habits like “black or white” thinking, overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, or jumping to conclusions.
Cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t aim to “get rid of” negative thoughts, but to help you learn to respond to them in better ways. O’Brien admits he still has suicidal thoughts, but thanks to getting treatment for depression, he now has a better understanding of his cognitive distortions, which he says are not “normal or helpful or healthy or worth my time.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-TALK (8255).
5 common myths about suicide debunked. Arlington, VA: National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2018. (Accessed on April 3, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2018/5-Common-Myths-About-Suicide-Debunked.)
Reducing suicide risk. Silver Spring, MD: Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2019. (Accessed on April 2, 2020 at https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/reducing-suicide-risk.)
Risk of suicide. Arlington, VA: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Accessed on April 3, 2020 at https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-conditions/related-conditions/risk-of-suicide.)
Suicide. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health, 2019. (Accessed on April 2, 2020 at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml.)