Suicide is Not Reducible to Simple Explanations

It is unlikely that any one theory can explain phenomena as varied and complicated as human self-destructive acts. At the least, suicide involves an individual’s tortured and tunneled logic in a state of intolerable, inner-felt, idiosyncratically-defined anguish. 

-Edwin Shneidman, founder of contemporary suicidology

When criticizing aspects of society, some people amplify their arguments by saying that those aspects cause suicide. Typically, the claim goes something like this, “____ is so bad that it leads people to kill themselves. Therefore, it’s urgent that we stop ____.” You should be skeptical when you hear these kinds of claims, because suicide is not reducible to simple explanations. It hurts to think about people grieving a suicide loss and then hearing that there was a simple fix all along. This is especially painful when there is little or no evidence that ____ substantially increases suicide risk. Additionally, if an empirically-weak claim receives enough public attention, limited suicide prevention resources can be squandered in the wrong places.

How to Evaluate Causal Claims about Suicide

Suicide is complex, and it’s extremely challenging to conduct research that yields results with causal implications. The closest we have to experiments may be randomized controlled trials designed to reduce suicidality. Keeping in mind that the majority of suicide research is correlational, here’s one set of criteria that you can use to evaluate whether ____ causes suicide.

1) temporal precedence: If ____ causes suicide, ____ must occur before the suicide (or a societal change must precede changes in suicide rates). Non-experimental research can speak to this criterion through longitudinal studies or other examinations of suicide rate data over time. However, it’s important to look at long-term trends rather than capitalizing on specific time points with fluctuations that are consistent with the claim.

2) covariation: If ____ causes suicide, then changes in ____ must accompany changes in suicide rates. I often see partial demonstrations where someone will say, “Here are higher suicide rates coinciding with more of ____,” but then leave out the necessary counterpart of establishing correlation: less of ____ should also be associated with lower suicide rates. Both are required to meet this criterion, and you don’t need experimental studies if you examine it through naturally-occurring differences. For example:

-Looking at World Health Organization suicide data, do countries with more of ____ have higher suicide rates than countries with less of ____?

-Do demographic groups who experience more of ____ have higher suicide rates than groups with less of ____ over the same time period?

If the answer is “no,” then the covariation criterion has not been met.

3) nonspuriousness: If ____ causes suicide, then the relationship must persist even after ruling out alternative explanations. This criterion is arguably the most difficult to prove without experimental studies, but there are some correlational data that you’d expect to see if the claim is true. Questions to ask of such claims include:

-What else increased aside from ____ during the time period of increased suicide rates? Is there research linking those other factors to suicide, and could that better explain the observed pattern?

-Do people experiencing more of ____ also experience more of something else empirically-linked to suicide that could better explain the observed pattern?

Here‘s a strong example of someone evaluating an alternative explanation for an observed pattern using correlational data on a completely different topic (specifically, the part on self-censorship).

I wrote this post to share a framework for evaluating causal claims that I learned in grad school, and I hope that you find it useful. Even if it’s completely unintentional, when people use unsubstantiated claims about suicide to magnify societal concerns, it can feel exploitative of a group of people I care deeply about. Fortunately, this is outweighed by incredible, compassionate work reflecting the complexities and multiple pathways to suicide. I’ll link to some of my favorites below:

American Association of Suicidology

The Best Way to Save People from Suicide

The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide

Live Through This

Suicide Prevention Social Media Chat

The Three-Step Theory

We Tell Suicidal People to ‘Get Help.’ But What Happens When They Do?

Thank you for reading! Here’s a post with more information and resources about preventing suicide.


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