A young man is in CBT to help treat suicidal ideation.

Here’s How CBT Can Help Treat Suicidal Ideation

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) teaches people coping skills to manage internal emotions associated with suicidal ideation.


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Trigger warning: Self-harm, suicide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. Contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988.

How CBT treats suicidal ideation

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses suicidal ideation by helping people identify and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to their feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. A therapist using CBT will work with a person to establish a safety plan and develop coping strategies to manage intense emotions, enhancing their protective factors. People can learn to regulate their emotions better and improve their problem-solving skills through cognitive restructuring and behavioral techniques. CBT also aims to enhance a person’s overall well-being and cultivate more positive and adaptive ways of thinking. By providing support and teaching practical skills, CBT can help people decrease their risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Seeking CBT is also vital for suicide prevention, as it effectively addresses suicidal ideation by teaching individuals to challenge harmful thought patterns and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Skills taught in CBT for suicidal ideation

Cognitive restructuring

This skill teaches people to identify and challenge negative thought patterns that contribute to their suicidal ideation. By replacing a suicidal thought with a more realistic and positive one, people can reduce their risk of engaging in self-harm behaviors and decrease their suicide risk.


This CBT intervention focuses on equipping people with effective strategies for tackling the problems and stressors that may be contributing to their suicidal ideation. By breaking down problems into manageable steps and considering alternative solutions, people can develop a sense of empowerment and control over their circumstances.

Emotion regulation

This skill helps people learn to recognize and manage intense emotions that may exacerbate their suicidal ideation. By practicing techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness, and grounding exercises, people can improve their ability to cope with depression, anxiety, or a suicidal crisis.

Safety planning

This CBT intervention involves collaboratively creating a personalized safety plan with the person to address their suicidal thoughts and behaviors. The safety plan typically includes identifying triggers, warning signs, coping strategies, and resources for seeking support in times of suicidal crises.

Behavioral activation

This skill encourages people to engage in activities that bring them a sense of pleasure and accomplishment, even when they may not feel motivated to do so due to their suicidal ideation. By gradually increasing their participation in positive activities, people can experience mood and overall well-being improvements.

Communication skills

This skill focuses on helping people communicate their needs and emotions to others, as well as assertively seeking help when they are experiencing suicidal ideation. By improving their communication skills, people can strengthen their support network and access the assistance they need.

Relapse prevention

This skill involves developing a plan to proactively address potential setbacks or periods of increased suicide risk for suicidal ideation. By identifying early warning signs of suicidal behavior through a suicide risk assessment and implementing coping strategies, people can reduce the likelihood of reaching a suicide crisis point. 

Benefits of CBT for suicidal ideation

Research has shown that CBT can have long-term benefits in reducing suicidal ideation in people struggling with mental health challenges. People can develop a healthier mindset and better manage their emotions by addressing negative thought patterns and providing coping skills. Over time, this can lead to a decrease in suicidal ideation and an overall improvement in mental well-being and protective factors. With continued practice and support, people can experience a reduction in their suicide risk, ultimately leading to a better quality of life.

How quickly does CBT work for suicidal ideation?

Research has shown that for many people, CBT can lead to a reduction in suicidal ideation in a relatively short amount of time. Studies have found that within just a few weeks, people undergoing CBT therapy have reported significant improvements in their thoughts of self-harm and suicide. This highlights the effectiveness of CBT in addressing and managing the challenges of suicidal ideation.

How is medication used to treat suicidal ideation?

Medication is commonly used to help manage symptoms of suicidal ideation and can be an essential part of a person’s treatment plan. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants are often prescribed to help stabilize mood and reduce feelings of depression and hopelessness. Mood stabilizers, like lithium and anticonvulsants, may also be used to help regulate intense emotions and reduce impulsive behavior. Additionally, atypical antipsychotics can be prescribed to address any psychotic symptoms that may be present. It’s important for a person to work closely with a healthcare provider to find the right medication and dosage to address their specific needs.

Other types of treatment for suicidal ideation

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

DBT focuses on mindfulness, distress tolerance, emotion regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness to help people learn coping strategies and develop healthier ways of dealing with difficult emotions and situations.

Psychodynamic Therapy

This therapy explores the underlying issues and conflicts that may contribute to suicidal ideation and helps people gain insight into their thoughts and behaviors. It also emphasizes building a trusting therapeutic relationship to facilitate healing.

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

IPT focuses on improving social support and communication skills to address relationship problems and interpersonal difficulties, which can be contributing factors to suicidal ideation. It helps people develop healthier ways of relating to others and managing conflict.

IOP for suicidal ideation

An Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is often used to treat people with suicidal ideation who do not require full hospitalization but still need more support than traditional therapy. IOP typically involves group therapy, individual therapy, and medication management and focuses on providing intensive support and structure to address the underlying issues contributing to the person’s suicidal thoughts. It offers a combination of various therapeutic approaches such as DBT, CBT, and mindfulness practices to help people learn coping skills and support them in managing their suicidal ideation.

Treatment for suicidal ideation at Charlie Health 

If a young person in your life is struggling with suicidal ideation, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health offers a virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) that provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for young people and families dealing with serious mental health conditions, including suicidal ideation. Our expert clinicians incorporate CBT into individual counseling, family therapy, and group sessions. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing suicidal ideation is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today.

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