Ask Me Anything About Suicide

Note: Even though World Suicide Prevention Day is over, I’ll keep answering questions that are sent to me on this post.

For World Suicide Prevention Day, I tweeted that people could ask me anything about suicide. Thanks to everyone who already sent me questions – they’re really good ones! If you want to submit a question, tweet it to me (@DrKathrynGordon) or e-mail it to me (kathrynhgordon@gmail.com).

If you’re in crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Crisis Text Line. The responses below are my opinions and should not to be taken as professional advice. More suicide prevention information and resources are available here.

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Added September 11, 2019

Anonymous asked: What criteria do mental health professionals use when deciding whether someone should be admitted to a hospital involuntarily for suicide risk?

Laws vary by location, and the criteria depend on the particular mental health professional, client, and situation. The typical criteria for involuntary hospitalization is that the person is at imminent or immediate risk for suicide. The field has a lot of work to do to get better at predicting when someone is at immediate risk for suicide (e.g., see Franklin, Ribeiro, et al., 2016). Some factors that therapists tend to view as indicative of immediate risk for suicide include (e.g., see Chu et al., 2015):

  • a clear, resolved plan and/or preparations made for suicide, intent to act on the plan, and access to lethal means (or plans to acquire lethal means)
  • multiple past suicide attempts (especially if recent)
  • the therapist and patient cannot create an alternative plan for safety (e.g., staying with a friend, temporarily storing lethal means elsewhere, identifying ways of coping with emotional pain that don’t involve suicide)

The mental health professionals who I have interacted with over the years tend to be eager to find alternatives to involuntary hospitalization. They seek to respectfully and collaboratively create a safety plan with their clients. However, I know from listening to other people’s stories that it’s not always the case. For example, Rudy Caseres is a mental health advocate who has spoken and written about these issues, and I recommend checking out his website here.

Published September 10, 2019

@ToWit12 asked: Let’s go worst-case scenario, where I encounter someone already with a gun to their head or about to jump off a bridge. What is the right (or rather, least wrong) thing to say/do?

Most people in that kind of emergency situation are experiencing pain, loneliness, and hopelessness. Individual situations vary quite a bit, but this would be my default:

I’d ask them to put the gun away or step away from the bridge, so we can talk (to increase safety). I’d talk to them in as calm and warm of a tone as possible. I wouldn’t endanger myself in this process, say they’re bluffing, or ignore them. I’d call for help if I could (911). I’d tell them I care about them, and that I’m there to listen and not to judge them. If I had struggled in my life, I’d let them know that (to increase a sense of connection). I’d commit to helping them find resources for addressing their problems (to increase hope).

For more on this topic, I recommend listening to this Story Corps segment about a police officer (Kevin Briggs) who helped a man (Kevin Berthia) who was about to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also worth watching Kevin Berthia’s TEDx Talk, The Impact of Listening and listening to this NPR segment, Mental Health Cops Help Reweave Social Safety Net in San Antonio for their approaches in mental health crises.

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Anonymous asked: I developed PTSD in the course of supporting a suicidal friend. Now other people’s suicidality is triggering to me, and I expect it to be that way for a while. I want to support friends who need it, but I want to support them at arm’s length. I’m in no position to be in the front lines of anyone’s mental health support team. This has been a problem: having gone to bat for one suicidal friend, I seem to be socially marked now as a person who will be supportive, even among people who are intellectually aware that it traumatized me. I’ve been somewhat beset by men, in particular, who demand that I provide womanly sympathetic listening without regard for my own mental health. Dealing with this gently while managing my PTSD symptoms is challenging.

World Suicide Prevention Day is coming up and I dread it. This is the kind of season in which I’m approached directly for mental health support that I’m not in a position to give.

I want to set very firm boundaries about how much mental health support I’m willing to do, preferably without hurting or antagonizing extremely sensitive people or getting into any arguments about whether I’m an ableist who’s contributing to stigma. How do I do that?

First of all, I’m very sorry that you had to go through such a painful experience. I hope that you have been able to find effective treatment for your PTSD.

Secondly, in my work as a therapist, I’ve heard a useful analogy used about helping others. When you’re on an airplane next to a child, they tell you that you need to put on your own oxygen mask in an emergency situation before assisting the child. If you don’t, you could suffocate while trying to put the mask on the child, and then neither of you will survive.

Right now, it sounds like putting on your own oxygen mask first means not being available to others in suicidal crises. I would say something like this, “I see that you’re in a lot of pain, and I really feel for you. I can’t be the one to support you right now. I’m struggling too, and to be well, I really need to focus on working through that first. If you can’t think of anyone else to talk to, you can always contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. I hope you find the support that you need.”

My hope is that most people would respond to that in a positive, understanding way. However, if they perceive your response as ableist, stigmatizing, or anything else like that — it’s important to stick with your boundaries anyway (repeating what you said, if necessary). We can’t control what other people think of us, but we can do our best to live according to our values and strive to be okay with our own decisions. Your mental health matters, and good friends should support your decisions to take care of it.

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Zach Clement asked: How can I support a friend who is considering suicide while keeping myself emotionally healthy, and how do I disengage with them when my relationship with them becomes unhealthy for me?

I recently was trying to give support to someone because I knew they were having a hard time, and they had said that they thought about killing themself. However, as time went on, they started attacking me and my relationships with others. I realized that my only reason for talking to them was that I knew I would feel guilty if I didn’t. Eventually, I told them that I wouldn’t talk to them anymore if they continued to attack the things that I valued, and they didn’t stop, so I told them I would just ignore them. I offered to help them find a therapist when I cut things off with them, but I still sometimes feel like I should have done something differently.

This is a really tough situation, and I don’t think these potentially complicating factors are included enough in public discussions of suicide. It sounds like you told the person how they were affecting you and gave them chances to apologize and change their behavior. Unfortunately, the person didn’t. A natural consequence of someone attacking you and your relationships with others is that you’re going to want to distance yourself from that person. And no amount of the other person’s pain gives them a right to be abusive toward you.

Honestly, I think I would have done the same thing that you did. I’d tell them that I couldn’t keep being around them if they treated me like that, but that I wanted to help them get connected with a therapist. The fact that you offered that was very kind and above and beyond what most people would do. I might give them some additional information like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If I knew someone else close to them – and it fit with the situation – I would mention that the person brought up suicide before and that you’re concerned.

I’d probably feel a bit unsettled about the situation, because I’d worry if the person hurt themselves I’d feel responsible. From my perspective though, you can’t allow someone to treat you like that repeatedly because you feel guilty. It sends the message to the person that it’s okay for you to be treated that way or that it’s okay for you to suffer because they are. So, then I’d try to cultivate some acceptance about the limits of what I can do for the person. It sounds like you made a healthy and correct decision for yourself. I hope the person pursues professional help and that you feel at peace with the way you handled it.

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Tyler Pritchard asked: Who are your top 3 influences in suicidology research and/or practice?

  1. Without a doubt, the most influential person in my scientific and clinical work is Thomas Joiner. He was my research mentor during undergraduate and graduate school. Thomas also directed my graduate program’s training clinic and played a huge role in my development as a therapist. His compassion, intellectual curiosity, and direct approach are all qualities I admire and strive to bring into my work.
  2. Marsha Linehan created a therapy for people who were traditionally excluded from clinical trials (e.g., high suicide risk, multiple mental health issues) with an empathic, skills-based approach. Her courage, irreverence, and dedication to helping people build lives worth living inspires me.
  3. It’s hard to pick the third person, so I’ll say my former grad school labmates as a group (e.g., Kim Van Orden, Tracy Witte, Jill Holm-Denoma, April Smith, Ted Bender, and Mike Anestis). They’re brilliant scientists and clinicians and also exceptionally kind people. Conversations with them over the years have helped me to understand suicidology at a much deeper level than I would without their friendship and collaboration.

Even though I already exceeded the 3 with that last one, I’ll also mention David Klonsky. The way he thinks about science and his 3-step theory of suicide have influenced me a lot too.

There are a bunch of others that come to mind, but you didn’t ask for my top 300, so I’ll stop here. 🙂

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Mike Heady asked: I’m not sure you have an answer for this but here it goes. I’m looking for data on how many people present or are admitted to hospitals for suicide risk when in fact the person is having intrusive self-harm OCD.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any luck finding data on this either. This is a great question though, and I want to discuss the meaning of it for any interested readers out there.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) often includes unwanted, distressing images or thoughts (referred to as intrusive thoughts). Sometimes, these thoughts are about contamination with germs, hurting others, or hurting oneself. You can see what this looks like in this video of an adolescent being treated for self-harm OCD symptoms.

Many people — even those without OCD — have experienced a self-harm image or thought come into their mind, even when they are not suicidal. For example, Hames et al. (2012) asked a college student sample (n = 431) if they ever had an urge to jump when in a high place. They found that it was fairly common, including among participants with no history of suicidal ideation (see the table below).

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For some individuals with OCD, their thoughts about self-harm are alarming, distressing, and feel like no part of what they would actually want to act on. They are not typically at high risk for suicide, because they usually try to decrease their anxiety about intrusive thoughts by taking extra safety measures (e.g., not handling knives). They’ll say that the thoughts are disturbing because they really do not want to die.

For other individuals with OCD, they may be struggling with their symptoms and considering suicide, because they believe it would be an escape from their pain. This type of situation is more worrisome.

Clinically, I’d look at the context of their suicidal thoughts to make my best judgment about their risk and whether hospital admission is appropriate. The presence of any of the following would put them at higher risk for suicide: a lack of distress or even a sense of comfort when thinking about self-harm, a history of self-harm or other suicidal behavior, a suicide plan and lack of fear about carrying it out, access to lethal means (e.g., an unsafely stored firearm), sleep disturbance, agitation, social withdrawal, severe mood disturbance, or significant weight loss.

For more information, check out this blog post: When People with OCD Fear Harming Themselves.

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Anonymous asked: Suicide is a concept I am ambiguous about. When I am distressed over something after a day, or when I feel I don’t belong in society or I will never be able to function normally like other people would, I feel or think that suicide is an escape route. Like, if all else fails and pain is too unbearable to take, I could choose it. That way, I would get rid of all the things that are troubling me. 

Or sometimes, I think that I am not courageous enough to pull the last act for suicide. When I brought this up during one of our sessions with my therapist, she told me that suicide is not about being courageous it is about cowardice.

So, my question is,

1 Is suicide about courage or cowardice? Does it take courage to commit suicide or does it means cowardice? Well, of course if doesn’t have to be one of those, but saying it’s cowardice feels like it’s underestimating the pain underneath. What do you think how should we look at this?

2 What do you think about the existence of the idea of suicide lingering in your head as an escape route as a comforting idea? Is it healthy, if not what can I put in its place?

1. Suicide is not an act of cowardice. Though there are different pathways to suicide, most people get there because they see no other way to escape excruciating emotional pain. They often mistakenly believe that they are doing others a favor by not living any more. Even very brave people are vulnerable to, and die by, suicide when afflicted by this pain. It’s not a sign of weakness (more about this on an NPR segment, Deconstructing Myths about Suicide).

In terms of courage – that’s not the word that I tend to use, because of it’s kind of value-laden. I prefer to describe to the ability to die by suicide as others have: capacity, capability, or fearlessness (about the pain and injury involved in suicide). For someone to kill themselves, they have to override a very strong human survival instinct. That drive to live is protective and life-saving for many people. Tragically, people who die by suicide break through that.

So, I don’t think suicide is an act of cowardice or courage in the vast majority of cases. It is an outcome that occurs when people are intensely hurting and don’t see another way out. Suicides hurt those who are left behind, even if that is not what the person intended to do. In the eyes of the bereaved, I would be surprised if they see either cowardice or courage in the situation — just heartbreak.

2. I have spoken with people personally and professionally who think about suicide to decrease painful emotions. If you’re interested, there’s some research on it in this paper called Daydreaming about Death: Violent Daydreaming as a Form of Emotion Dysregulation in Suicidality.

First, I want to say that there’s nothing to be ashamed of and that you’re not alone in doing that. It’s valid to want to decrease your emotional pain. However, I do suggest that people find other strategies for feeling better. My concern is that fantasizing about death might increase suicide risk. It could potentially reduce the protective fear that surrounds suicide and strengthen the links between positive feelings and death.

In terms of what to put in its place, you could try to imagine feeling better and that your problem is solved. If that doesn’t feel authentic or practical for you, I recommend finding ways to remind yourself of your ability to cope from past situations, that you can take things one day at a time, and that you find other ways of dealing with distress. For example, there are some ways listed in this post here that include distraction and finding emotional uplifts (e.g., watching comedy, intense exercise, seeking social support, etc.). If it’s relaxation that you are looking for, this website has some nice audio recording options that are worth trying instead. I hope you find some of these other approaches helpful and comforting.

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Coral More asked: Do you see another model than assess & refer to 911/hospital given what we know about trauma resulting from police encounters and hospitalizations/emergency rooms? I know it’s a very tricky one but I never see folks talking about it.

I’ve been on both sides of this, feeling the need to call emergency services but also voluntarily presenting to the emergency room and being absolutely traumatized by the dehumanization and cruelty there.

I personally have recommended calling 911/the hospital in certain (though very few) situations where other options were exhausted and there’s urgency. These include situations where: 1) the person already hurt themselves or 2) they’re at immediate risk of self-harm. This pathway can be lifesaving, appropriate, and beneficial (though experiences vary a lot, as you said above — people can also have horrible, terrifying experiences that are detrimental to their well-being).

There are many, many more situations where I have collaboratively worked with someone to find an alternative suicide prevention approach. My default is to collaboratively create a safety and coping plan. This includes reducing access to lethal means, identifying supportive people (I often try to call at least one friend or relative with the consent of the patient, and this tends to go well), and listing methods for reducing emotional pain (e.g., emotion regulation skills, crisis survival strategies for distress tolerance). In addition, I provide them with emergency numbers, and we identify when they would need to go to the hospital or call 911 (e.g., if their suicidal thoughts escalate to suicide planning or preparation).

Part of the discussion also includes ways to intensify treatment without using the hospitalization or emergency services route. For example, increasing the frequency of therapy sessions or attending a partial hospitalization program (where people go in for treatment during the day, but sleep at home).

This article is good for looking at suicide risk as a continuum with a variety of interventions that correspond with severity: Routinized Assessment of Suicide Risk in Clinical Practice: An Empirically Informed Update.

I like what Marsha Linehan says in this video about hospitalization (keeping a person alive through constant monitoring) versus taking a risk by not always hospitalizing at any threat of suicide, so they can have a chance at building a life worth living.

I also recommend listening to Rudy Caseres, a mental health advocate, speak about his views and experiences with hospitalization in this interview.

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Science Can Meaningfully Advance Public Discussion About Suicide

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Public discussion about suicide is dominated by particular types of narratives. Media outlets tend to focus on celebrities who, despite outward signs of success, are tragically driven to despair. Other news stories tell heartbreaking tales of young people who end their lives after experiencing readily identifiable stressors. This coverage is important, and compassionate media depiction is crucial for public understanding. However, discourse that’s constrained to certain kinds of stories obscures two key points: 1) suicide is really complicated and 2) it can affect anyone. With a trend of rising suicide rates in the United States, we need to expand our conversations and make more room for nuance.

Five years ago, I heard a story about a suicide attempt that broke the typical media mold. It was this powerful NPR Story Corps segment about a man named Kevin Berthia, who was extremely close to jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. In under three minutes, listeners learn that Berthia suffered from depression throughout his life and that this escalated to suicidal thinking when he couldn’t pay for his infant daughter’s enormous medical bills. This triggered embarrassment, self-directed anger, and feelings of failure. Filled with urgency to escape his overwhelming pain, he got directions to the bridge and climbed over the railing. He was stopped by an empathetic police officer, Kevin Briggs, who spoke with him for an hour and a half on the ledge before he decided to climb back to safety. Berthia’s life was saved, but his struggles continued for years. In a piece for the Guardian, he wrote, “Reporters are always after the happily-ever-after ending.” This coverage stands out because it includes his backstory and the moment-to-moment details of Berthia’s path toward, and ultimately away, from suicide.

Suicide is the result of a culmination of factors pushing people into excruciating states where death is viewed as relief. Suicidologists acknowledge that diverse pathways lead to suicidal desire and seek to identify commonalities among people in acutely risky states. For example, Berthia had pre-existing vulnerabilities related to growing up with some family conflict and in a neighborhood where he was pressured to hide his depression. Then, compounding the uniquely jarring worry of having a child in compromised health, Berthia also blamed himself for not being able to foot medical bills to the tune of a quarter of a million dollars. This propelled him to the Golden Gate Bridge with the thought, “All I gotta do is lean back and everything is done. I’m free of all this pain.”

Between StoryCorps and the Guardian article, we get a sense of several contributing factors and potential intervention points that are generalizable beyond Berthia’s individual situation. For example, there seems to be a sustained cultural push against the belief that people should hide depression. And while the Affordable Care Act sought to partially address the dire state of affairs for many Americans facing medical costs, additional changes are desperately needed to overhaul a system that leaves people struggling to meet basic physical needs. A comprehensive suicide prevention initiative would address these and other empirically-linked risk factors (e.g., incarceration, homelessness, combat exposure, physical illness, mental illness, and discrimination). This long list of suicide risk factors can leave people feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to help. Thankfully, Klonsky and May (2015) developed a scientific framework called the Three-Step Theory (3ST) that meaningfully organizes and prioritizes this information:

3ST diagram

from Klonsky, May, & Saffer, 2016

Berthia’s experience appears to fit within the 3ST. The first step proposes that people desire suicide in the presence of pain and hopelessness about the future, “If someone’s day-to-day experience of living is characterized by pain, this individual is essentially being punished for living, which may decrease the desire to live and, in turn, initiate thoughts about suicide” (pp. 116-117). Within the 3ST, suicidal desire could be reduced by targeting both distal factors (e.g., eliminating environmental factors that increase the probability of emotional pain) and proximal factors (e.g., increasing hope and coping skills). People advance to the second step of increased suicidal intensity if their pain overpowers meaningful connections to life. In the moment Berthia was about to jump to his death, Briggs emphasized Berthia’s connection to his daughter and the suicidal intensity decreased, “My daughter, her first birthday was the next month. And you made me see that if nothing else, I need to live for her.” A society seeking to prevent suicide would foster these kinds of connections, at multiple levels, for as many people as possible. The 3ST makes the case, building on the interpersonal theory of suicide, that the survival instinct prevents most people from attempting suicide even if they desire it. The third step usefully identifies three facets of a capacity to override this survival instinct: dispositional (e.g., genetics related to pain sensitivity), acquired (e.g., experiences that result in decreased pain sensitivity and lowered fear of death), and practical (described as knowledge of and access to lethal means – e.g., in Berthia’s case, getting the directions to the bridge and not facing a suicide barrier once there). The practical aspect of capability for suicide has been the focus of initiatives to reduce access to lethal means in times of suicidal crises (e.g., through safe gun storage). Increasing safety at times of suicidal crisis can have long-lasting positive effects, as most suicide attempt survivors do not go on to die by suicide.

Suicide is complicated and that contributes to widespread misunderstanding. Science can guide us away from investing resources in domains that have unknown relationships with suicide and toward those that have demonstrably stronger ones. Research illuminates potent risk factors and makes our understanding of suicide more precise. Suicide prevention advocates have increased public awareness about a variety of different suicidal experiences and continue to fight for public policy aimed toward saving lives. Recently, there have been excellent examples of compassionate, realistic media coverage and fictional depictions of suicidal behavior. Altogether, this suggests that the public has the will to prioritize suicide as a public health problem. Scientific frameworks like the 3ST can steer us in productive, solution-focused directions.

Suicide prevention information resources are available here, and here’s a summary of intervention research.

You can hear more of Kevin Berthia’s story here:

You can hear Kevin Briggs speak about Berthia’s story here.

 

How Psychologists Capture the Complexities of Mental Illness

When it comes to understanding and treating mental illness, clinical psychologists must strike a balance between grouping people with shared characteristics together and recognizing people’s individual paths, circumstances, and needs. Below I’ve described some of the models that clinical psychologists use to reflect these complexities.

1) Biopsychosocial Model

Most modern psychologists understand that mental illness is the result of both nature and nurture. Accordingly, biopsychosocial models map out biological, psychological, and social risk factors for mental health outcomes and highlight potential intervention points. This model is so prominent that clinical psychology graduate programs require education in human development, individual differences, and biological, cognitive, affective, and social aspects of behavior, and you can’t become a licensed psychologist without passing a formal test on these topics. The idea is that mental health outcomes result from the interplay of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors and that different people arrive at outcomes through different combinations of factors. Here’s a sample I constructed from some suicide risk factors:

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2) Diathesis-Stress Model

People with identical genetics (i.e., monozygotic twins) and people with shared stressful events (e.g., witnessing the same violent act) can have different mental health outcomes. For example, many people with family histories of eating disorders will not develop eating disorders. Likewise, many people who have been bullied about their weight will not develop eating disorders. A diathesis-stress model of eating disorders explains this by saying that a person must have both a vulnerability (e.g., a genetic predisposition) and a significant stressor (e.g., weight-related bullying) to develop an eating disorder.

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3) Multifinality and Equifinality

People who experience a similar event (e.g., trauma) can have disparate outcomes that depend on other factors (e.g., financial resources, societal views of survivors). This is called multifinality. Meanwhile, people with similar outcomes (e.g., posttraumatic stress disorder) can arrive there via distinct pathways (e.g., surviving sexual assault, a car accident, being the victim of gun violence). This is captured with the term equifinality.

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4) Distal vs. Proximal Factors

Most research on mental illness focuses on a few risk factors per study. Organizing findings across studies can feel like fitting puzzle pieces together to create a holistic picture. One way to do this is by grouping risk factors in terms of how far in time (distal) and how close in time (proximal) they are to the onset of mental illness. For example, strategies for reducing distal risk factors for adult depression may include public policy efforts to prevent childhood maltreatmentincrease access to quality health care, and decrease discrimination. Meanwhile, therapy for individuals with depression may focus on more proximal factors (e.g., enhancing coping skills, increasing social support, behavioral activation).

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5) Nomothetic vs. Idiographic

I highly recommend this article by Beltz, Wright, Sprague, and Molenaar (2016) for detailed definitions of these terms:nom idioFor example, imagine that a client gets diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In order to figure out the best way to help, a therapist begins with nomothetic information (e.g., the diagnosis) to select a treatment. A randomized clinical trial suggests that a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention (EX/RP) leads to significant improvement among 80% of people with OCD after 17 sessions. Based on available information, EX/RP is a good place to start. However, it’s possible that the client will be among the 20% of people who don’t respond to EX/RP. Therefore, therapists must also pay attention to idiographic information after initiating treatment (e.g., by regularly assessing the client’s OCD symptoms over time). If the client’s not responding to therapy, the idiographic data signal that the therapist must figure out why and make appropriate changes.

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For more information on nomothetic and idiographic approaches, check out:

Clinical Practice as Natural Laboratory for Psychotherapy Research: A Guide to Case-Based Time-Series Analysis

Clinical Versus Actuarial Judgment

Single-Case Experimental Designs for the Evaluation of Treatments for Self-Injurious and Suicidal Behaviors

What Can the Clinician Do Well?

I’ve described frameworks that clinical psychologists use to understand people’s mental health needs at multiple levels while respecting their individuality. The dedicated people working hard to alleviate suffering in the face of these challenges give me hope for the future of the field.

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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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Suicide Prevention Information & Resources

This week involved a lot of heartbreaking suicide-related news. We tragically lost Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain to suicide. We also learned that U.S. suicide rates increased substantially over the past several years. If you want to learn and do more to prevent suicide, I want to help you out by linking to some good sources. I hope you find them useful.

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If you need help:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Trans Lifeline

The Trevor Project (for LGTBQ+ youth)

Veterans Crisis Line

Find a Therapist

Find a Support Group for People Who Have Lost Someone to Suicide

Listen to a Hopeful Music Playlist Made by College Students

Research-Supported Treatments for Adults

Research-Supported Treatments for Children

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David Burns

How to help others:

Warning Signs

How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal

Take a Mental Health First Aid Training Course

Get involved:

Call Your Representatives and Tell Them to Prioritize Policies linked to Suicide Prevention (e.g., access to quality healthcare, funding for research)

Participate in an Out of Darkness Community Walk

For information:

Suicide Statistics

Suicide Prevention Social Media Chat

Live Through This Photo Project

Wil Wheaton Essay about Mental Health

Rudy Caseres, Mental Health Advocate

Robert Vore, Mental Health Advocate

It Gets Better Project

Why People Die by Suicide by Thomas Joiner

Myths about Suicide by Thomas Joiner

Guns and Suicide by Michael Anestis

Cracked Not Broken by Kevin Hines

Speaking of Suicide by Stacey Freedenthal

Brother Ali’s Song about Losing His Dad to Suicide

I’ve seen Minneapolis-based rapper Brother Ali in concert several times, and he strikes me as someone who’s as kind as he is talented. When I told him at a Chicago show that I had previously chatted with him in Orlando, he tried to remember me. He told me that he doesn’t recall faces due to albinism-related vision issues, but he recognizes people through reminders of previous conversations. He rapped about his experiences in “Us”: And I go with the feeling from the start/Blind in the eye, so I see you with my heart/And to me all y’all look exactly the same/Fear, faith, compassion and pain.

All of this is to say that I’m a Brother Ali fan and my expectations were high for his 2017 album, All The Beauty In This Whole Life. I think it’s a musical masterpiece, and “Out of Here” is a standout song. The lyrics are a detailed expression of his feelings and thoughts after losing his dad to suicide. In this post, I included all of his lyrics (in bold) and my comments (in italics) with some links to relevant research.

I recommend watching his performance of the song before reading the rest of the post:

Okay so it might appear
To an outsider that you found your way up out of here
They’re saying you died of suicide
People who are suffering may view suicide as an escape from a painful life. I like how Ali phrases the third line, because it removes the stigma associated with other phrasing (e.g., commits suicide).
That’s the last thing I want to hear
They tell me that it’s hardly fair to blame myself
What a hell of a cross to bare
You didn’t say it in your letter
But the fact that I failed you is loud and clear
Suicide can be a particularly painful kind of death to grieve because 1) it means someone you love was deeply hurting and 2) there may be more of a sense that you could have prevented it, if only you had acted differently in some way. It’s a common response for people to tell you that someone’s suicide is not your fault, and yet, it can be hard to refrain from blaming yourself for not stopping the person.
Found out the amount of fear
You would drown when you found yourself naked staring down a mirror
And partners are supposed to lay the cards bare
I left you playing solitaire, and I promise you that I’m sincere
When someone dies by suicide, it might feel like there was a misunderstanding or even a kind of dishonesty between you if you didn’t know the person was contemplating suicide. I think Ali is saying that his dad might have been trying to tell him how he felt (‘lay the cards bare’), but that Ali felt like he failed him by leaving him ‘playing solitaire.’ Powerful imagery.
If you’re looking for some judgment, you won’t find it here
Let’s be honest here
I can’t say I’ve never known that kind of despair
When the clouds appear, how’s life fair
Some people erroneously perceive people who die by suicide as selfish or weak. However, Ali feels compassion and humbly links it to his own experiences. He may also be fearful about his own future (e.g., will his suicidal desire increase to the levels that his dad’s ultimately did?).
I just want to draw you near
As he sorts through the different feelings, there’s a basic desire just to be close to his dad again.
Not to make it about me, but how could you check out
Before you really allowed me a chance to sit down and hear?
I think I would’ve listened
Or were you saying it all along and I just missed it?
You sang your swan song, we all dismissed it
Ali acknowledges that the suicide isn’t about him, but feels a frustration about his father leaving without trying to ask Ali for help first. He then changes course and tries to look for signs that his dad *tried* to reach out, but that Ali missed or ignored it.
Because you filled the room with laughter
I watched when you thought no one was looking at you
In hindsight, I wonder where your smile went
When the party ended and you swallowed it
I saw you swallow it
Sometimes, people who have lost someone to suicide say they saw it coming, but others feel completely shocked. It can also switch back-and-forth in the mind of a person as they try to make sense of it.
Okay so it might appear
That you took yourself up out of here
How many cries soak through your disguise
Before you drown in your silent tears?
Okay so it might appear
That you took yourself up out of here
How many times can you fight for your life
Before you throw that white flag up and volunteer? (x2)
Here, Ali seems to be trying to figure out the threshold that was crossed before his dad killed himself. I don’t know if this is Ali trying to understand if his own life obstacles and past suicidal ideation might ever exceed that threshold or if he is trying to understand his dad’s experience better (or both).
I’ve had car accidents
Where everything is slow motion no matter how fast it’s happening
Every second that pass stretches so that you can watch it unraveling
But can’t always react to it
Your whole life might flash before your eyes
The minute when you transition to the other side
But what can actually happen in that time?
In-between the leaping and the moment you collide
In-between the trigger and the blast
In-between you let go of the wheel and you crash
In-between the moment when you swallow the last pill in the bottle
Turn out the lights, roll the dice on tomorrow
Is there a moment to reflect, can there be regret?
Is there a wait, not yet, let me reset?
Or is it just too painful to accept?
That maybe death just seemed best
I think Ali is trying to imagine what his dad was going through at the time he died by suicide since he cannot ask him about it. He’s wondering if he crossed his dad’s mind or any reluctance emerged that could have prevented his death. Or was it more like an uncontrollable-type of experience where he felt like he was watching himself but could not change the outcome?
Suicide prevention researchers, such as Thomas Joiner (1,2), have argued that an innate drive for survival and fear of death saves the lives of many people who desire suicide. I have heard Joiner describe this as a ‘flinch’ that people might experience right before or during a suicide attempt. He has presented compelling anecdotal evidence of this through stories of people who survived suicide attempts. Kevin Hines, a suicide attempt survivor from the Golden Gate Bridge, said he felt instant regret after he jumped. Along with others, suicide prevention researcher Mike Anestis, has proposed that this window maybe an opportunity to prevent some suicides through means restriction during high risk periods
I heard this as Ali arguing for not taking one’s life, even in the face of repeated, seemingly unjust hardships…’you can go down swinging.’
Okay so it might appear
That you took yourself up out of here
I’m trying not to resent you
But you left me defenseless in the life we share
Every man before me in my fam died by his own hands
How am I supposed to understand my own role in the plan
When nobody who grows old stands a chance?
Ali lost both his dad and his grandfather to suicide. He’s wrestling with sympathy for his dad and his own feelings about being left behind.
What about this mysterious dance
Made you cut the cord to the curtain in advance?
But these are questions I can only ask
The person looking back in the looking glass
Ali recognizes that he is full of questions that now must go unanswered.
I’ll close by saying that I am truly sorry if you’ve lost someone to suicide – this post is dedicated to you. I’m especially thinking of a friend who is going through this now. Research by Julie Cerel and colleagues suggests that each suicide affects a large number of people (even larger than previously thought). It’s imperative that we increase the effectiveness of suicide prevention efforts. If you need support, please consider some of the resources below.
Resources
You can find a therapist through the Association of Behavioral and Cognitive Therapy, and you can find a support group for survivors of suicide loss through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has an online chat option, and their phone number is 1-800-273-TALK.

Fact-Checking 5 Suicide-Related Statements from a Viral Ben Shapiro Video

In a YouTube video titled, “Ben Shapiro DESTROYS Transgenderism and Pro-Abortion Arguments,” Shapiro made several claims about suicide. His video currently has 3,126,889 views, which is probably 3,126,885 more views than this blog post will get. Because I feel strongly about making accurate mental health information available to the public, I decided to put a good faith effort into fact-checking the video despite my limited reach. I focused on the suicide-related claims in the video, because I am cautious about commenting on topics outside of my areas of expertise. His statements appear below in bold and my evaluations of their veracity, using empirical data, are beneath them.

1. “The idea behind the transgender movement, as a civil rights movement, is the idea that all of their problems would go away if I would pretend that they were the sex to which they claim membership. That’s nonsense. The transgender suicide rate is 40%. It is 40%.”

False. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention-Williams Institute study that he appeared to be referencing found that 41% of a sample of transgender and gender-nonconforming (TGNC) adults reported having a lifetime suicide attempt, not a suicide death. The distinction between suicide attempts and suicide deaths is important for reasons directly noted in page 4 of the report:

deaths

It’s possible Shapiro misspoke here and genuinely could not recall the information accurately, but I have not seen a correction released from The Daily Wire despite the highly-viewed video being out for over a year. If you see that a correction has been made, please let me know, and I will update this post.

2. “According to the Anderson School of UCLA, it makes no difference – there’s a study that came out last year – it makes no difference, virtually no difference statistically speaking, as to whether people recognize you as a transgender person or not, which suggests there’s a very high comorbidity between transgenderism  — whatever that mental state may be — and suicidality that has nothing to do with how society treats you.”

False. As mentioned above, I believe that Shapiro meant the Williams Institute of UCLA study instead of the “Anderson School of UCLA,” and that was simply a mistake. But Shapiro gets two things wrong here. First, I am not certain, but based on the context from the full video, I think he misconstrued or misused how “recognition” was defined in the study. The study measured whether people tend to recognize (in the sense that they can tell) that a person is TGNC rather than recognition in the sense I think Shapiro meant (accepting a transgender person’s gender identity as valid — e.g., personally and/or legally). Secondly, there was a statistically significant difference found in the study’s recognition analysis, as seen in pages 8 and 9 of the report:

recognizetext

rtable

Regarding the next part of his claim, how society treats you does appear to be correlated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts among TGNC individuals, including in the study he referenced (from the Executive Summary, more details on pp. 11-13):

vic

In a separate study, TGNC youth reported whether or not people called them by their preferred name in 4 domains (home, school, work, friends). They found that chosen name use in more contexts (which the researchers used as a proxy of gender affirmation — i.e., recognizing the validity of their gender identity) was correlated with lower depression symptom levels, less suicidal ideation, and less suicidal behavior. This study was published after his video was made, but I am adding it here for informational purposes.

3. “The idea that the normal suicide rate across the United States is 4% — the suicide rate in the transgender community is 40% — the idea that 36% more transgender people are committing suicide because people are mean to them is ridiculous. It’s not true, and it’s not backed by any science that anyone can cite. It is pure conjecture. In fact, it’s not even true that bullying causes suicide…according to a lot of studies.”

False/Oversimplified. His larger point of comparing TGNC suicide attempt rates to general population rates is informative for characterizing disparities, but the 4% statistic reflects the lifetime suicide attempt rate featured in the report rather than the suicide death rate. Regardless, I don’t think that people typically claim that the entire explanation for the TGNC/general population suicide attempt rate disparity is due to meanness/bullying. Rather, the argument is that certain stressful factors (including some typically considered mean/bullying) may contribute to a higher risk for suicide attempts among transgender people. For example, from page 13 of the report:

stressors.png

Suicidologists do not talk about suicide as being caused by one factor, because there are a multitude of interacting factors at work. That is why I consider the bullying claim to be oversimplified. Moreover, there is scientific evidence that being bullied is associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (e.g., 1, 2,3) and that bias-based harassment (e.g., due to sexual orientation or race) is associated with particularly negative effects.

4. “For example, in the Black community where the idea is supposedly that America’s a racist society….Blacks are bullied a lot. Okay, in the Black community, there’s significantly lower suicide rates than in the White community.”

Half True. It is true that, in the United States, Black people generally have lower suicide rates than White people (over most age ranges, with the exception of the higher suicide rates found among Black children than White children) as you can see from this table of CDC data posted on the American Association of Suicidology website (where rate is defined as number of suicides by group/by the population of the group X 100,000):

Untitled

But this does not, as Shapiro suggested, prove that bullying is unrelated to suicide rates. As mentioned above, suicide is an outcome influenced by the interplay of risk and resilience factors. If, hypothetically, one group was bullied in equal amounts as another group, and there were disparate suicide rates, that does not necessarily mean that the group with the higher rate has a particular mental state with comorbidities (as Shapiro characterized being transgender) that accounts for all of the difference. It could be due to a number of possible factors (e.g., being a member of a group that, on average, has less social support to buffer against risk factors like bullying).

Further, racism is evident in various domains (e.g., discrimination in housing, education, healthcare, voting, and the criminal justice system), but bullying may not be one of them. At least one study using a nationally representative sample found that Black youth (19%) reported being bullied at comparable rates to White youth (21%).

5. “In fact, in third world countries, the suicide rate is significantly lower than in first world countries. Suicide actually seems to be a privilege of the upper classes if you actually look at it from a financial perspective. So, the idea that suicidality is directly a result of people like me saying, ‘No, men are not women and women are not men.’ It’s not true.”

Mostly false. I’m not sure that I fully understand the thread through this argument. My best guess, based on the full video context, is that Shapiro proposed that suicide occurs more among people with societal privilege and therefore high suicide attempt rates among transgender people would not be improved if they had more societal privilege? Or that denying the validity of transgender people’s gender identity and bullying do not increase risk for suicide, but having a lot of money does?

There are two claims to fact-check here. First, I’ll focus on the statement about suicide rates in “third world” (developing) vs. “first world” (developed) countries. To evaluate this, I examined the World Health Organization‘s 2016 suicide data by country (units are # of suicide deaths/100,000 people) paired with the World Bank’s 2017 country classification data (high income, upper middle income, lower middle income, low income). There was a lot of variability within the categories (especially in the high income group). For example, the high income group (n = 50) ranged from 0.5/100,000 (Antigua and Barbuda) to 31.90/100,000 (Lithuania). Meanwhile, the low income group (n = 31) ranged from 3.7/100,000 (Malawi) to 11.7/100,000 (Haiti). I conducted an ANOVA on the 174 countries I had data for and found statistically significant differences in the direction that Shapiro asserted. Stats people may have noticed that the assumption of homogeneity of variance was violated and that the groups are unequal sizes. Parallel analyses using a robust (Welch’s) ANOVA and nonparametric (Kruskal-Wallis) testing suggested comparable results.

Chart 1.png

Because Shapiro mostly meant suicide attempts when talking about suicide deaths, I’ll also include results from a study which found, “twelve-month prevalence estimates of suicide ideation, plans, and attempts were 2.0%, 0.6% and 0.3% respectively for developed countries and 2.1%, 0.7% and 0.4% for developing countries.” There were no meaningful differences for suicide attempt rates related to developed/developing status in that study, and contrary to Shapiro’s second claim, they found that lower income was associated with higher levels of suicidal ideation, plans, and attempts in both developing and developed countries. Similarly, a meta-analysis revealed that low (not high) income level was associated with increased risk for death by suicide:

risk in females

suicidemales

In summary, at a broad level (developing vs. developed countries), Shapiro accurately described the pattern of suicide rates. However, when examining the variables with more precision (e.g., at the individual financial status and suicide risk level), the data are inconsistent with his claim that suicide is a “privilege of the upper class.” It is possible that specific societal structures and cultural elements better account for the observed disparities in national suicide rates.

In conclusion, Ben Shapiro argued that he and others should not be pressured into personally or legally recognizing transgender people’s gender identity as valid rather than their assigned sex at birth. One way that he tried to justify those feelings was to make several statements purportedly proving that societal treatment of transgender people has no impact on their suicide risk. Shapiro has every right to have and express his feelings on this issue. However, his feelings don’t change the fact that societal treatment is, according to a lot of studies, related to suicide risk among transgender people.

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Note 1: The widely-watched Shapiro video is from February 19, 2017, and as of May 14, 2018, I see no notation that corrects any of the misinformation in the video or on his website. If you are aware of such corrections, please contact me, and I’ll update the post. 

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Note 2: For more information and resources about suicidal behavior among TGNC people, please see my post about gender dysphoria and suicidality in Laura Jane Grace’s memoir and the links below:

For Accurate Information on this Topic: American Psychological Association

Learn More about the Lived Experiences of TGNC People in Their Own Words: Aydian DowlingChaz Bono, ContraPoints, Janet MockJazz Jennings, Laverne CoxLeelah AlcornLive Through This ProjectTrans documentaryTrue Trans documentary series with Laura Jane Grace

Suicide Prevention Resources: American Association of SuicidologyAmerican Foundation for Suicide PreventionDarcy Jeda Corbitt FoundationNational Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Trans Lifeline, The Trevor Project

Information for Mental Health Professionals about Affirming Psychological Practice With TGNC People: APA GuidelinesA Model for Children & Adolescents

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Thank you to Linda & Keith for helping me figure out how to best fact-check #5.