Background: The vast majority of research on, and clinical assessment of, cognitions related to suicide and non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI) has focused on verbal thoughts. And yet, mental imagery is more realistic and emotionally arousing than verbal thoughts.
Methods: We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis documenting the prevalence of suicidal and NSSI mental imagery and describing the content and characteristics of suicidal and NSSI mental imagery, links between suicidal and NSSI mental imagery and suicidal and NSSI behavior, and how to intervene on suicidal and NSSI mental imagery. Studies published through December 17, 2022 were identified through a systematic search of MEDLINE and PsycINFO.
Results: Twenty-three articles were included. Prevalence rates of suicidal (73.56%) and NSSI (84.33%) mental imagery were high among clinical samples. Self-harm mental imagery commonly depicts engagement in self-harm behavior and is experienced as vivid, realistic, and preoccupying. When experimentally induced, self-harm mental imagery reduces physiological and affective arousal. Preliminary evidence suggests that suicidal mental imagery is associated with suicidal behavior.
Conclusions: Suicidal and NSSI mental imagery are highly prevalent and may be associated with heightened risk for self-harm behavior. Assessments and interventions for self-harm should consider incorporating and addressing suicidal and NSSI mental imagery to mitigate risk.