By Anna Vitale, Ph.D.
Most everyone has suicidal fantasies at some point. These can range from imagining how upset loved ones would be over your death, wishing relief from emotional or physical pain, or thinking about suicide as an act of courage or rebellion. While these thoughts and fantasies can be scary, they don’t necessarily indicate a strong wish to die.
By examining suicidal fantasies, we can learn about the underlying desires or mental/physical anguish driving these thoughts.
How Can Suicidal Fantasies Be Helpful?
Having a suicidal fantasy is one way of saying to ourselves, “Hey there! I need something! My feelings matter!” Suicidal fantasies indicate our desire for permission to have negative feelings, no matter how difficult or unwanted. When we do not know how to express these feelings—anger, revenge, and loneliness, for example—they can cause us to daydream about suicide. This is because often we either feel ashamed of our negative feelings and try to make them go away or because we don’t know how best to cope with these powerful feelings. But negative feelings are normal and they don’t just go away without being addressed.
When Hassan, a mid-20-year old, had his first heartbreak, he had a difficult time coping. Will, the man he had been dating seemed like The One. They had taken a wonderful vacation together and were making plans for the future. Then abruptly, Will stopped returning his calls. Hassan became frantic and did everything he could to reach Will, but after a few weeks, it was apparent that Hassan had been ghosted. Feeling powerless, angry, and sad, he began fantasizing about killing himself. In the fantasy, Will discovers Hassan has killed himself and realizes it’s his fault; he is overcome with grief and guilt. These fantasies were comforting.
Bobbie was a new first-time mother. Her newborn never napped and was colicky and a poor breastfeeder. It wasn’t long before Bobbie felt exhausted and inadequate. Her husband had an extremely demanding and time-consuming job, so although he tried to be helpful, he wasn’t around very much. So far, she had not found childcare and her parents lived in another city. When the baby got fussy, Bobbie found that the only thing that helped was to carry him around until he fell asleep. She spent hours walking around with Kevin in the carrier and started to have back and knee pain. The combination of physical pain and anxiety often led her to fantasies of non-existence. Although she knew she would never take her own life, the idea of relief from pain and worry was very appealing.
Mario is a political activist passionately involved in social justice. He was distraught at the government’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents. He wrote letters to the editor and attended political rallies, but felt he needed to do more and was at a loss. Every time he read about children being taken from their parents, he felt enraged and powerless. Then, he started to fantasize about staging a dramatic suicide. He thought about how he would do it to get maximum attention in the media and the positive effect it would have. Mario has many friends and is generally an upbeat person. He knows that he will not kill himself but the thought of committing suicide as an act of protest makes him feel better.
Why Do Suicidal Fantasies Matter?
The negative feelings that lead to suicidal fantasies signal the need for an authentic and lasting change in our lives. This often begins with finding ways to safely own and express these feelings. For Hassan, Bobbie, and Mario their suicidal fantasies emerged in the context of powerful and deep feelings that needed their attention. Each was dissatisfied with an important aspect of their life and they had conflicting feelings about whether/how they should act on their dissatisfaction. Their suicidal fantasies were trying to tell them that what they want matters and that a real change to their life might be needed.
What Can Be Done with Suicidal Fantasies?
While having suicidal fantasies is more common than you might think and nothing to be ashamed of, it is beneficial to take responsibility for paying attention to when, where, and why you have them. If you have a suicidal fantasy, you can ask yourself:
- What just happened? What was I just thinking about? If you’re not sure, that’s OK.
- Has anything difficult happened? Have I given myself permission to feel that it was difficult?
- What do I need that I’m not getting in my relationship/ job/ daily life? How can I protest my conditions without destroying myself?
Do your best to hold off on any judgments regarding your questions and exploration. Judgment often makes us feel trapped and contributes further to negative emotions, and our suicidal fantasies, more than anything, need listening. Surprisingly, they can show us what matters most for our well-being.
When To Seek Help
Although suicidal fantasies can teach us about what we need and provide temporary emotional relief, they can persist if left unaddressed, developing into a more serious concern. Seek help if you find that suicidal fantasies are becoming more frequent or interfere with your daily life or involve developing a plan. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a free resource available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For more information please explore these suicide warning signs and risk factors. And if someone you know expresses a wish to take their life, let them know you’re listening and that you care about them and encourage them to seek professional help.
Anna Vitale, a writer and a member of the Bard Microcollege faculty at the Brooklyn Public Library, is the author of a collection of poems and essays, Detroit Detroit, and Our Rimbaud Mask.