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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Advice for Aspiring Professors

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my colleague, Professor Erin Conwell

Last month, I wrote a post describing my tips for graduate school success. A student suggested that it would be helpful to have a follow-up post featuring advice about becoming a professor, and I thought that was a great idea. As you read through my recommendations for aspiring professors, please keep a few things in mind. First, disciplines, universities, and departments all vary in terms of what they look for when they are hiring. Most of my experience and knowledge come from psychology departments in the U.S. with a primary focus on research and a secondary focus on teaching. Therefore, my advice may be most applicable to people seeking out those types of jobs. Second, most graduate students are already aware that publications are a major way that job applicants are evaluated for professor positions in research-focused departments. Therefore, I have not included direct advice on publishing below, even though it is undeniably an important part of being a competitive job applicant for these types of positions and should be prioritized. Finally, many people take postdoctoral positions before applying to work as a professor and that provides additional opportunities to gain experience in the areas described below.

Programmatic Research When making hiring decisions, faculty select applicants who are likely to succeed at establishing an active research program in their department. One way to increase their confidence in your ability to do that is to have a specific plan for the types of research that you will pursue both in the short-term and the long-term. If you demonstrate that you have a program of research with well-articulated, theory-driven, and well-formed research questions propelling your work, you will be a strong applicant. Alternatively, applicants who have disconnected, poorly planned, and impractical ideas will not be as competitive. 

My advice for graduate students is to think about conceptualizing your research in a programmatic way when preparing your job application materials and job talk (a presentation of your research that most interviews include). I suggest asking to see other people’s materials as samples and consulting with faculty for feedback as you prepare your own. Every piece of work (e.g., publications, presentations) that you have done does not have to fit within one theme, but it helps if you can tie your past, present, and future work together with a (or a few) overriding theme(s).

Grant potential It is also typically important that you demonstrate the ability to obtain grant funding for your work. You can do this by 1) getting a grant in graduate school (they don’t have to be major grants, smaller within-university or department grants can be helpful in this regard), 2) applying for an external grant (e.g., through the National Institute of Health or the National Science Foundation) even if it is not funded, and 3) showing that you have knowledge about grants (e.g., specific ideas about the types that you will pursue once hired).

My recommendation for graduate students is to prepare for your job application and interview by actively seeking out grant information through specialized workshops, research mentors, and websites for relevant funding agencies, which often have tutorials available. It is especially helpful, as I mentioned above, to gain experience by actually applying for grants. Even if your grant applications are not funded, it still reflects positively on you that you applied. You should understand the main types of grants that you would be eligible for and the types of projects that tend to be prioritized for funding.

Teaching potential Job applicants are also usually evaluated on their ability to teach effectively and to fill department needs. You can present evidence that you will be a good teacher through 1) positive ratings and comments from students for previously taught courses , 2) job application materials expressing enthusiasm and citing sources of specific knowledge about teaching (e.g., classes taken about teaching), and 3) letters of recommendation that positively reflect on teaching-related skills. If you are invited for an interview, you can also demonstrate your potential through positive interactions with the department’s graduate and undergraduate students and a willingness to teach a variety of classes.

In addition to seeking out the types of teaching experiences I listed above, I also suggest preparing for your job talk by practicing it for different audiences and getting feedback from a variety of people (e.g., professors both within and outside of your specialty areas). If you didn’t have a lot of teaching experience in graduate school (which was the case for me), it may be especially important to present a polished job talk that displays relevant skills: clearly expressing and connecting ideas, engaging an audience, and responding well to questions.

Collegiality As is the case with most hiring decisions, people seriously consider whether the applicant would be a good colleague. By that, I mean someone who will contribute to the department and university in meaningful ways, act with integrity, and behave respectfully toward others. Evidence that someone is likely to make a good colleague can come from 1) showing interest and enthusiasm for other people’s work in your application and on the interview, 2) being polite and interactive during the interview, and 3) letters of recommendation touching upon your strong interpersonal skills.

For this component, my advice is to be mindful of the ways that you interact with your peers, professors, and others in graduate school, so that these individuals can attest to your collegiality. You can prepare for job interviews by seeking out opportunities to interact with professors and peers in your own department, communicating with conference attendees and presenters, etc. These type of experiences will help you to refine your professional interaction style and increase your comfort level.

Match Beyond the collegiality aspect mentioned above, your goals and priorities and how well they align with the department, your openness to potentially collaborating with others in the department, and your commitment to similar values as the department (e.g., prioritizing evidence-based treatments in clinical psychology programs that have a clinical scientist training model) will all be considered.

My advice is to look closely at information about the department, the faculty, and the university and highlight areas of fit in your cover letter and then expand upon them in more detail if you are invited for an interview. 

I enjoy being a professor and wrote this post to help others who are interested in becoming professors. The application process for these types of positions can be daunting. My hope is that this post makes typical areas that are considered for hiring more transparent, and that the advice will help you to prepare for the process.

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to my graduate school mentor, Dr. Thomas Joiner, for all of his excellent job-related advice. I also want to thank Brandon Saxton for giving me the idea for this post and for feedback on an early version.