Suicidal Thoughts: A Psychiatrist Shows How to Find Hope in the Darkness

Suicidal Thoughts

People are struggling with suicidal thoughts, especially with pandemic-related anxiety, depression, and loneliness casting a heavy gloom.

Japan is reeling from an alarming rise in suicide, with more people dying by suicide in a single month than by COVID-19 during the entire pandemic. And a November 2020 study in BMJ suggests preventive action must be taken now to strengthen mental health in order to avoid this distressing trend from emerging throughout the world.

Approximately 9.3 million Americans reported having suicidal thoughts, according to CDC statistics from 2015. By contrast, an estimated 1.3 million attempted suicide that year, confirming that most people who have these thoughts don’t act on them.

After 30 years of clinical practice at Amen Clinics, including thousands of suicidal patients, it’s clear that having thoughts about suicide isn’t uncommon. One of the most important findings from treating thousands of patients at Amen Clinics is this: Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

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You may think it’s your fault that you’re contemplating ending your own life. However, brain SPECT imaging reveals that people with suicidal thoughts often have abnormal activity in the brain. The brain imaging work at Amen Clinics, which includes over 300 people who have attempted suicide, has found that certain brain patterns are common in people with thoughts about self-harm.

Amen Clinics brain imaging studies on suicide and brain function have been published in peer-reviewed journals, including Translational Psychiatry and The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. These studies show that suicidality is associated with dysfunction in the brain’s limbic system (emotional centers), impaired impulse control, and low blood flow in a region known as Brodmann Area 25 that is commonly seen in treatment-resistant depression.

“When my patients see their brain scans, it can be so helpful in reducing the shame, guilt, and self-blame they feel,” says Daniel Emina, MD, a neuropsychiatrist at Amen Clinics and the author of the upcoming book The Suicide Solution. “When people understand why they feel the way they do, and that there are ways to enhance their brain health and reduce suicidal thinking, it can be life-saving and life-changing. It can help them chart a path into life and freedom.”


1. Look for distractions.

If you get stuck on suicidal thoughts, picture a big red stop sign in your mind and say, “STOP!” Keep a list handy with ways to distract yourself from looping thoughts, such as taking a walk, exercising, getting in nature, reading an uplifting book, petting your dog, dancing to your favorite music, or eating a mood supportive meal (portion appropriate healthy fats, proteins, and complex carbs) that includes mood foods that fight depression. Consider channeling your negative emotions into creative actions (journaling, painting, cooking, making music, caring for others, etc.)

2. Challenge your negative thoughts.

Are you filled with thoughts like these?

“I’m worthless.”

“Life isn’t worth living.”

“My family would be better off without me.”

These are ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that infest your mind and steal your happiness. Learning to question your thoughts is one of the most important tools you can use to find the light amid the darkness. Whenever you have one of these thoughts, ask yourself if it is true. Then ask yourself if the opposite of that thought is true and look for examples.

3. Remember to breathe.

“If you feel overwhelmed by suicidal thoughts, it’s common for your breathing to become quicker and shallower, which in turn can activate your fight or flight system, driving up your stress neurotransmitters, and impairing decision-making,” says Dr. Emina. Whenever you have suicidal thoughts, remind yourself to breathe deeply (deep belly breaths, not with your chest), taking twice as long to exhale as the inhale. For example, inhale for 3 seconds, hold it for one second, then exhale for 6 seconds. Doing this 10 times can help you feel better and clear your thinking.

4. Reach out to someone.

If clouds of dark thoughts descend on you while you’re alone, reach out to a family member, friend, minister, counselor, or any other person who will be supportive. “When suicidal thoughts are closing in on you, it can be hard to think about who to contact, so it’s a good idea to make a list of people in your support system so you’ll have it available when you need it,” says Dr. Emina. Simply add them to your favorites on your phone or use an APP like “My3App” to help you organize your safety net.

5. Don’t drink alcohol.

Over one-third of suicide victims consumed alcohol prior to their suicide attempt, according to statistics. Alcohol decreases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, an area involved in impulse control, judgment, and decision-making. “When you drink or use other substances that lower activity in the frontal lobes, it can reduce your impulse control which can have devastating consequences,” says Dr. Emina. “When you’re in a stable state, you may think, ‘I want to die…but I don’t want to hurt my children.’ When alcohol fogs your thinking, you’re less likely to consider the consequences of your actions.”

6. Create a Hope Box

A strategy that many patients find helpful is to find a box and fill it with things that give you hope and that make you want to live. Make a list of the reasons why life is worth living. Include quotes, mantras, and verses that encourage you, photos of the people you love, mementos that are meaningful to you, and cards or letters that make you smile. Whenever you’re feeling down, open your Hope Box and let it fill you with inspiration.

7. Think about the legacy you’re leaving.

Remind yourself that children and teens who lose a parent to suicide are three times more likely to take their own lives, according to research in The Psychiatric Clinics of North America.

8. Seek professional help.

You don’t have to face troublesome thoughts alone. Finding a mental health care professional who uses brain imaging can help you understand your brain, optimize its function, develop strategies to challenge your thoughts, and find hope and healing. Work with a professional to create a pre-emptive safety plan to include reducing access to any potential methods of self-harm while creating a network of supports.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

At Amen Clinics, we have treated hundreds of people who have attempted suicide, and thousands more who have contemplated it. We specialize in precision psychiatry that includes brain SPECT imaging to identify underlying brain abnormalities that increase the risk of suicide and offer personalized treatment plans to optimize the brain and lead to a happier, healthier outlook on life.

If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal tendencies and would like more information on how to heal your brain and love your life, find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Thank you for enlighten me on this subject. I have struggled with thoughts of suicide for years (even though I know would never actually do it). I have wondered if these thoughts have had an impact on my brain- functioning. This article makes so much sense to me! Thanks for “daring” to share!

    Comment by Bridget — February 15, 2021 @ 3:52 AM

  2. Thank you for sending me this life-saving information.

    Comment by Tauqir Hussain — February 15, 2021 @ 4:40 AM

  3. PLEASE STOP saying “suicide is as permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Figure out a different way to state that. Because frankly, it’s a cruel statement, and I’ll tell you why:

    As a woman with bipolar disorder, one of the most disheartening, horrible things to hear when I’m suicidal is any variation of “this too shall pass” (“temporary problem” being one such variant). Because it never, ever feels “temporary.” In fact, I regularly feel like “it’s back, again. it comes back, over and over. So, it’s NOT temporary, and you have no idea what you’re talking about.” The only temporary part about it for some of us is the reprieve.

    (and yes, I’ve had a SPECT scan,at Amen Clinic in Bellevue. I basically found out I was already doing all the things that the psychiatrist could suggest – and still struggling. So it was a useless spend of our resources and yet another seeming confirmation that it will always be like this)

    Comment by Sarah Christensen — February 15, 2021 @ 11:06 AM

  4. I suffer from depression and lately I think about suicide every day. I m going to try some of these technics to see if they’re good for me

    Comment by Sergio — February 15, 2021 @ 3:00 PM

  5. Guilting and shaming people for having the thoughts of past attempts only exacerbates the problem. The better question is: How do you remove Suicide from the list of viable options?

    Comment by Angela — February 15, 2021 @ 3:42 PM

  6. Any kind of positive support is helpful. You also have to want to get better to get better. Also taking your meds . That always helps . When that dark feeling come reeling its ugly head channel it somewhere else. The manic is the first signs that the rollercoaster is coming. Take tht energy an send it somewhere else that it can be used . I had the same feelings but I wanted more than wht I had an I’ve keep any of those feelings away an I got better. I hope you find peace. Stay positive an things will get better with time. There is no other choice but to. Good luck

    Comment by Teresa Osterkamp — February 15, 2021 @ 3:44 PM

  7. I have thought for years that the saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” was simplistic, trite and insulting. Perhaps it can be used on young people who have their whole lives in front of them. But I remember my aunt’s older husband who was diagnosed with bone cancer. He shot himself. Who knows what pain he was in? His was not a temporary problem. I remember a young Viet Nam Veteran who committed suicide many years ago. I don’t remember if his parents were even allowed to bury him in “holy ground” by the Catholic Church. I’ve suffered with clinical depression, OCD, Adult ADD. Hoarding Disorder and was in therapy for almost 30 years in addition to having taken every anti depressant ever made. The only thing that has saved me was the knowledge that it would break my husband’s heart if I did anything “desperate”. I think that suicide is selfish but I can’t judge anyone else. Many people including young ones don’t have that “safety valve” that I have and don’t have the money for SPECT imaging which I understand insurance doesn’t pay for. But perhaps they can buy “The End of Mental Illness” by Dr. Amen which has helped me or his program for about $200 sold on Public Television. I so admire Dr. Amen for the work he does.

    Comment by Joan Brooks — February 15, 2021 @ 8:13 PM

  8. Every time I hear you give a talk, I feel better. Please consider doing some free talks to help people.

    Comment by Lilly — February 16, 2021 @ 5:37 AM

  9. First, may I say how much I truly appreciate Amens Clinic for the research and care for those suffering with mental illness challenges. I feel the stories that lead to each suicide is different, unfortunately the result is the same and permanent. I’m the only generation out of five in my family not to successfully take my life. However, I did lose a brother (my generation) to murder caused by a mentally ill mother, who also died by suicide. For this very reason, I have always been very motivated to never hurt my family this way and make every effort to stay healthy mentally. My one and only attempt at suicide happened at a young age because of a temporary problem and alcohol. I don’t suffer from depression or other mental disorders. So yes, the comment Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem is true sometimes. However, I also know that it is not always true. Sadly, I lost a wonderful daughter, who I know had used all the suggested advice given in this article. She suffered much of her life with mental illness challenges. For her it was not a temporary problem.

    Comment by Diane — February 16, 2021 @ 5:47 AM

  10. Honestly, the slogan “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” sounds like you are encouraging or recommending suicide. You are offering a permanent solution, that’s what people want and need. Can we rethink this? Certainly it shouldn’t be tweeted around the planet.

    Comment by Mei — February 19, 2021 @ 7:40 AM

  11. I agree that the expression “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” isn’t always accurate. I was taught to hate myself, from a very young age, and this emotion has stayed with me throughout life. (I’m a senior citizen now.) I have received a lot of help, and I’m in a better place with myself, but memories of all the pain are still a heavy burden. And some negative behaviors that were set into motion, have persisted. No, I’m not suicidal, but sometimes I wish I had died young so as to avoid all the pain. My point is, sometimes our problems are not temporary.

    Comment by Karen Stuart — February 20, 2021 @ 9:47 PM

  12. Im in the UK and find the tips here very simple and very good. It seems, from what I have read, pyschiatric care, research etc is much better in the USA. Also, from reading, It seems American Drs seem much more sympathetic. American people are much warmer than us very reserved Brits. We British are terrible for opening up about our problems. I admire Dr Amens research and clinic. He is doing much to help people. I find someone holding me for a minute the best antidote to suicidal thoughts. Nobody ever seems to mention this. Im basically lonely and dont have anyone to hold me when I need it. I live alone and have cut myself off over the years from friends so there is nobody much around to hold me. I think Asking someone to hold you does take away the suicidal thoughts but you cant go around asking strangers to hold you can you? it would seem strange. Not everyone has partners, family or friends to ask for a hug but if you do, get someone to hold you tight. Its worked for me at desperate times.

    Comment by Lee — February 10, 2022 @ 7:22 AM

  13. That phrase about suicide being a permanent solution to a temporary problem doesn’t work for me as a helpful statement . I have problems that can’t be fixed anymore. I just want out at this point.

    Comment by Sandy — April 14, 2023 @ 9:16 PM

  14. Get in a relationship with god he is there for you no matter what he can heal your body mind and soul. Renew you in every aspect. Trust me I was there I found faith hope and grace and found a new perspective of life prayer warriors and church it really helped me picking up my Bible even praying for myself and other people Nothing is impossible for god to turn around. There is always hope with him. Just wanted to put my thoughts out there. To anyone this may help. It is not a permanent solution the devil wants to try to take over your mind pray and ward off the evil and see the light God loves everyone. There is always hope with GOD.

    Comment by Chris — September 21, 2023 @ 6:25 AM

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