By Dr. David Woo - August 29, 2020
Many people who struggle with thoughts of suicide are afraid to tell a healthcare provider because they’re worried they’ll immediately be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility. This is not the case.
Suicidal ideation is a symptom of a mental health disorder, and just like any other symptom, it’s important to tell your doctor about it so that you can get the care you need. Your doctor can help you address the underlying cause of suicidal thoughts. So, what will happen if you tell your doctor that you’re having thoughts of suicide?
Your Doctor Will Ask You Questions to Understand the Extent Your Feelings
Whether you speak with your primary care physician or a mental health professional, expressing your feelings is a positive step towards getting treatment. To fully understand how you’re feeling, your doctor will ask you some questions, which might include:
- Have you recently experienced an emotional loss? (Have you lost a loved one? Your job? Or have gone through a divorce?)
- What life circumstances have brought you to thinking suicidal thoughts?
- Are you currently using drugs or alcohol?
- Do you have a plan for how you would commit suicide?
- Have you ever attempted suicide in the past?
Your Doctor May Refer You to a Mental Health Professional
If you’re talking to your family doctor or general practitioner, they’ll probably recommend that you start seeing a mental health professional in addition to continuing treatment with them. Because depression and suicidal thoughts are sometimes related to an underlying medical condition, depending on your health history, your GP may also wish to perform a general physical exam and order some lab tests, just to check that you’re in good physical health.
If you’re already seeing a mental health professional (such as a psychiatrist, therapist, or counselor) and you discuss your suicidal thoughts with them, they will work with you to create a treatment plan together. Mental health professionals are trained to help patients work through suicidal thoughts. They’ll help you recognize certain situations and/or emotions that may trigger suicidal thoughts. This allows you to identify warning signs early on and take steps to minimize the risk of suicidal thoughts.
If you’re seeing a mental health professional who can prescribe medication, such as a psychiatrist or a nurse practitioner, they may recommend antidepressant medications to help stabilize your moods and keep you safe. But whether to take medication is always a discussion between you and your care team. If you prefer not to take antidepressants, tell this to your psychiatrist or nurse practitioner. There’s still a lot they can do to help you conquer your suicidal thoughts, even if you don’t want to take meds.
What Would it Take to Get Someone Involuntarily Committed?
Involuntary commitment to a psychiatric facility does sometimes occur – but it’s more rare than what most people think, and it only happens in extreme cases. Each state has different requirements for what can prompt an involuntary commitment, but essentially, a patient can only be admitted to a psychiatric hospital against their will if they pose an immediate danger to themselves and/or others. This typically means that they have made threats and have a weapon on hand, or that they’ve already hurt themselves. If you’re sitting in your doctor’s office and calmly discussing your thoughts, you clearly don’t pose a danger to yourself or to them. Your doctor or therapist does not have the power to have you committed if you simply have a conversation with them about your thoughts of suicide.
In most states, if someone is admitted as an involuntary patient, they’ll be held for 72 hours. During this time, patients receive medical treatment and have time to find some relief from feelings of distress. After 72 hours, the patient can choose to stay in the hospital under voluntary care (meaning that they’re there by choice and have the freedom to leave whenever they want), or they can go home and continue with mental health treatment on an outpatient basis.
How Do You Know if You’re Having Suicidal Thoughts?
Many people who experience suicidal thoughts are suffering from clinical depression, but thoughts of suicide may also be brought on by extremely stressful situations or life events. Suicidal thoughts may include:
- Thinking about death and/or dying frequently (do you often think that you’d be better off dead?)
- Thinking about harming yourself or wanting to kill yourself
- Having an idea of how you would commit suicide
A person may be at risk of having suicidal thoughts if they:
- Are feeling trapped or hopeless
- Turn to drugs and alcohol to find relief
- Have a family history of a mental health disorder such as depression
- Have a history of physical or sexual abuse
- Have recently experienced an emotional loss, such as the loss of a loved one
Your Life Matters. Ask for Help.
As part of National Suicide Month and National Suicide Week, I’d like to encourage people who are having suicidal thoughts to talk to their doctors. It can be scary to open up to your doctor about these types of feelings, but talking to a professional is the first step in getting the help you need. Your life matters and there are people who want to help you.
If you are experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support from a trained counselor. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, every day of the year.