New Research on Suicidal Behavior : Associations between life and death

A few days ago, I was passed a rather controversial article written by an American psychologist in the wake of the Tony Scott suicide stating that “he hates suicide but understands it in the case of terminal illnesses” and “even highly trained psychologists have trouble defining a suicidal patient”. As a psychologist, I know this is something that you must keep a very close eye on, looking for those tell-tale words and signs that can point you towards diagnosis. However, the very nature of the relationship between therapist and client sometimes hinders this in the fact that if someone is determined to end their life, they are unlikely to tell someone who can take steps to stop it. This places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of psychologists who more often that not do not or cannot pick up the signs. However, new research (highlighted below) would seem to suggest that responses given to words or groups of words can give an indicator of suicidal behavior. Though it would be wrong to see it as an exact science, the results are encouraging.

Determining who is at risk for suicide is an arduous and inexact endeavor. Even trained clinicians can miss warning signs.

Researchers have now developed an instrument they believe will help predict those at risk.

Matthew Nock of Harvard University, along with colleagues from Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, modified a well-known word-association test to measure associations between life and death/ suicide and examined if it could be effective in predicting suicide risk.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) is a widely used test that measures automatic associations people hold about various topics. Participants are shown pairs of words; the speed of their response indicates if they unconsciously associate those words.

In the IAT version used in this study, participants classified words related to “life” (e.g., breathing) and “death” (e.g., dead) and “me” (e.g., mine) and “not me” (e.g., them).

Faster responses to “death”/”me” stimuli than “life”/”me” stimuli would suggest a stronger association between death and self.

People seeking treatment at a psychiatric emergency room participated in this study. They completed the IAT and various mental health assessments. In addition, their medical records were examined six months later to see if they had attempted suicide within that time.

The results, reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, revealed that participants presenting to the emergency room after a suicide attempt had a stronger implicit association between death/ suicide and self than did participants presenting with other psychiatric emergencies.

In addition, participants with strong associations between death/ suicide and self were significantly more likely to make a suicide attempt within the next six months than were those who had stronger associations between life and self.

These results suggest that an implicit association between death/ suicide and self may be a behavioral marker for suicide attempts. These findings also indicate that measures of implicit cognition may be useful for identifying and predicting clinical behaviors that tend not be reported.

As Nock explains, “these results are really exciting because they address a long-standing scientific and clinical dilemma by identifying a method of measuring how people are thinking about death and suicide that does not rely on their self-report.”

He adds, “we are hopeful that this line of research ultimately will provide scientists and clinicians with new tools for measuring how people think about sensitive clinical behaviors that they may be unwilling or unable to report on verbally.”

Mahzarin Banaji, also of Harvard University and a co-author of this study, adds that this work presents a strong argument for the importance of funding basic behavioral research.

“These results are an example of basic research helping to solving a troubling and devastating problem in every society. The method we used was designed to understand the mind, but it turned into a technique that can predict disorders of a variety of sorts. One wonders why funding agencies that should know better about the value of basic research seem so naive when it comes to decisions about what is in the public’s interest.”

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a Counseling psychologist in private practice working with individuals, couples, groups and companies. Apart from seeing clients face-to-face, Dr Jenner also runs a thriving online therapy business bringing help to those who are housebound or located in rural locations where therapy is difficult to find. He can be booked for online sessions from anywhere in the world. First consultation free. For more information , follow the link to his website HERE

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  9 comments for “New Research on Suicidal Behavior : Associations between life and death

  1. August 24, 2012 at 6:38 pm

    Fascinating and important find.

  2. August 25, 2012 at 11:50 am

    Reblogged this on survivorsjustice and commented:
    Some insight from this expert psychologist about reports and research founded to help diagnose suicide in some patients. What a wonderful gift this is and I’m sure it will be of a great resource to many distinguished therapists & clinicians to prevent suicide and save lives, thanks so much for sharing. It happens that I have close connections with many survivors of traumatic abuse who have suicidal thoughts and it is vital for someone to help them before it is too late. It can be so easy to get swept away in the distress of healing and moving past what has happened, this is indeed a bright light to help protect those who are in this falling point, ty!!

  3. August 25, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    I am intrigued to say the very least, I will be looking further into your site. Suicidal thoughts haunt me and perplex me, I find myself stuck in the battle between knowing what a tremendous burden I am to my wife and sadly/simultaneously being the foundation on which she has built her life on. She depends on me, if for nothing else, just to BE there, yet at the same time, since I have become disabled and unable to fulfill my duties as a husband, as in taking care of things around the house, managing the finances, PROVIDING for her and the list goes on, I cannot help but constantly weigh and try to discover where that thin line is, when does my being the rock in her life turn into my being the anchor that drags her down and possibly sinks her?

    I went to my family doctor begging for help, he referred me to the local Psychiatric Center and I was so disappointed I simply do not have the words to convey the emotion. I talked to the Doctor’s Nurse Practioner and she she just took my medical history, what medications I was taking and put it all into a computer to come up with the safest pharmecuetical combination. She put my on Zoloft and Klonopin and sent me home to come back in 30 days. I came back, expecting that THIS would be the time we would TALK, but alas, she just followed up on how the meds were affecting me and increased dosages. We repeated this a few times and on the 5th visit I asked her when did we get down to talking about the raging battle in my head as to whether I should kill myself or not? Her answer was that they just pushed pills, they didn’t councel with people, I should find a social worker or a Psycologist if I felt I needed counseling.

    This left me more than a little confused and also, slightly angry, but perhaps it is just my interpretation was that far off because it was my first time to ask for help. All I know about this sort of thing is what I have seen on television, I was under the impression that you went to a Psychiatric Center to see a Psychiatrist to help you decide when/if the best answer ws to take a hasty exit and leave your wife to live her life in peace, I mean I know it would be traumatic and devestating for her, but I honestly think in many ways it might be the best thing for her.

    • August 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

      I am sorry to hear that you have this feeling in your mind but believe me, your wife would never choose to not have you around despite what you think. As for the “care” you are getting, this is rather a typical story. It is much easier, cheaper and less hassle to distribute never-ending amounts of pills than to get you proper help. Maybe a combination is needed. I think it is very important to keep the communication channels open with your wife, let her know what you are feeling and how all this is affecting you. As you said, you are the foundation of her life so clearly she loves you…help her to understand what you are going through and it will help you to unburden yourself. I am sure she is much stronger than you think. If you want to talk some things over…just let me know.

      • August 28, 2012 at 5:47 am

        I am speechless. Your kind reply was very much appreciated to be honestr, just the fact that you took the time to reply to me moved me. The past couple of weeks have been hell for me, but I hope to be feeling a little better sometime soon and then I will have a good, solid look at your site and information.
        Thank you for you amazing kindness and generosity of spirit.

      • August 28, 2012 at 9:53 am

        You are more than welcome…

  4. August 26, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Very interesting article.

    After the suicide here at the hospital a couple of weeks ago, all of the staff have been shocked at what happened and quite emotional about it all because they think they failed. When really there were no signs that this guy was going to do this.

    However, I would like to see this word choosing system being operated in the hospital and maybe it would show that things are not as they seem with people.

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