Chronic pain can be debilitating on a physical and mental level. While it has been known to intensify suicidal ideation, you should know there are resources to help yourself or a loved one.

Research shows that over 25% of people in the United States live with chronic pain, and that over 20 million of those people live with debilitating chronic pain.

Research from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also shows that in 2020 alone, there were roughly 1.2 million suicide attempts.

Because of the impact that chronic pain can have on a person’s overall quality of life, living with chronic pain can increase someone’s risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

If you or someone you love has chronic pain, here’s what you need to know about chronic pain and suicide risk — including how you can best support yourself or a loved one who lives with this condition.

You’re not alone

If you’re one of the millions of people living with chronic pain, you’re not alone — and if things have been difficult for you lately, there is support available.

Here are some resources you can check out for both immediate support and long-term mental health treatment:

Chronic pain, whether debilitating or otherwise, can significantly affect someone’s day-to-day life.

Chronic pain can make it difficult to perform everyday activities, like working, cleaning, or even showering, for example. Chronic pain can also have an impact on someone’s mental health. It can lead to increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

One large study from 2018 explored the rate of chronic pain in over 123,000 people who died by suicide from 2003 to 2014. According to the study results, roughly 9% of people who died had evidence of chronic pain — including pain from medical conditions like cancer and arthritis.

The results of the study also found that of the people who had experienced chronic pain:

  • over 54% were living with one health condition
  • almost 16% were living with two health conditions
  • almost 6% were living with three or more health conditions

Another large study from 2021 explored the link between chronic pain, depression, suicide risk, and substance misuse. According to researchers, chronic pain was associated with not only a higher risk of depression but also an increased risk of suicidal behavior.

In addition, high levels of tobacco use, as well as opioid and other pain medication misuse, were more common in people with chronic pain.

Because research has shown that there is a link between opioid misuse and suicidal behavior, this may be another factor that affects the relationship between chronic pain and suicide risk.

In older adults specifically, functional disability and chronic health conditions are also associated with an increased risk of suicidal behaviors.

Not only does chronic pain itself increase the risk in older adults, but so do many other conditions that can cause pain, like cancer, neurologic disorders, and arthritis.

There are multiple risk factors for suicide. Many of these risk factors may be directly related to chronic pain. Some risk factors for suicide may include:

There are also several factors that can protect against suicide risk. These are equally important to understand. Some protective effects against suicide can include:

  • having a strong social support system
  • having long-term plans to look forward to
  • having children or owning pets
  • having professional mental health support
  • having religion or faith
  • being in a romantic relationship with someone
  • being in mental health treatment
  • being open and communicative about one’s feelings

Everyone’s lives and situations are different, so some people living with chronic pain may have more protective factors in their lives than others. And while we can’t always change some of these factors, it’s still important for us to recognize them and offer additional support whenever possible.

In older adults especially, doctors and other healthcare professionals also play a huge role in recognizing suicide risk in their patients.

Because older adults often visit their primary care doctors more often than mental health professionals, primary care doctors can use psychological assessments during visits to help identify when someone might benefit from extra support or help.

Chronic pain isn’t just physical pain. It can be emotionally painful to deal with as well.

If you or someone you know experiences chronic pain, here are four steps that may help ease the emotional impact of living with this condition:

  1. Practice stress management: Chronic pain can cause stress, and stress can cause more pain. Alleviating some of that stress — either through lifestyle strategies or mindful activities — can help break that stress-pain cycle.
  2. Offer yourself self-compassion: Self-compassion means approaching yourself with the same compassion and understanding you would offer a loved one. If you have chronic pain, this might look like speaking kindly to yourself, focusing on your daily wins, and meeting yourself where you’re at.
  3. Engage with your life: Chronic pain can make it difficult to be present, but being present can be a helpful distraction from pain. Engaging with friends, hobbies, and “the little things” in life can be a meaningful distraction when things feel difficult.
  4. Build a support system: When you’re living with chronic pain, having a support system is so important. Allow your family and friends to support you in whatever way you need. Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional support if you need it.

Want to get involved in the latest treatments for chronic pain?

If your current treatment for your chronic pain isn’t providing relief, the medical field is always working to create new and improved treatments and therapies.

If you want to help advance what we know about pain management, you can check out to see what studies are currently looking for participants.

Make sure to always discuss clinical trials with your primary healthcare professional, especially if it would involve any changes to your current treatments.

Because chronic pain affects almost 1 in 4 people, it likely affects someone you know or love.

One of the best ways you can show support for someone in your life who lives with chronic pain is to become a part of their support system. While this may look different from person to person, sometimes this support can be as simple as offering a safe space for them to talk about their feelings.

Support can also look like offering to help with daily or weekly tasks around the house or providing a much-needed distraction (such as watching a TV show, playing a game, or sharing in other hobbies) on a difficult pain day.

There may be times when people living with chronic pain don’t have the energy to plan out what would help them the most. If you are a close member of someone’s support system, you may be in a place to offer help before they ask for it.

Taking the initiative to ask, “When can I drop off this lasagna for you?” rather than “Is there anything I can make for you?” can make a world of difference for people living with chronic pain.

How to support someone with suicidal thoughts

Although not everyone who lives with chronic pain experiences suicidal thoughts, we know that these kinds of conditions can increase the risk of self-harm thoughts and behaviors.

And because everyone deals with their emotions differently, some people may be open about these thoughts and feelings, while others may not discuss them at all.

If you suspect that someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts, here’s how you can help:

  • Remain calm: Many people experience periods of suicidal thoughts and grow past them. This is a serious time for your loved one, but staying calm is the best way to de-escalate the situation.
  • Encourage them to openly discuss their feelings with you: Offer your emotional support by listening and empathizing, if you have the capacity to do so.
    • If they do express suicidal thoughts or intentions, don’t shy aware from or try to repress the thoughts, but do encourage the person to reach out and get professional help — or emergency help, if needed.
  • Do what you can to help them feel less alone: Remind them of the people that love them. You can also help them connect with something that brings them joy, like a favorite food or comfort movie.
  • Help them put together a self-help plan: This can be a useful tool to refer to when things become difficult. A good self-help plan includes places to go for support during difficult times as well as:
    • a personal support system phone tree or group chat to reach out to
    • easy meal plans or other ways of getting good nutrition
    • a self-care plan to ensure hygiene regimens can get done even on high pain days
    • a calendar of regular social events or outings with friends

If you believe that someone you love is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 988, 911, or local emergency services, or get them to the nearest emergency room so they can get help.

Living with chronic pain every day can be difficult. Research has shown that people living with this condition may have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

If you or someone you love is living with chronic pain and has experienced these kinds of thoughts, know that you’re not alone, and support and help are available right now.