Can you Measure Suicidal Tendencies?

Submitted by Nic on December 19, 2013

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States, with a rate of 11.3 suicide deaths per 100,000. For every suicide death there are 11 attempted suicides. On the surface of it the question of measuring suicidal tendencies seems a bit pointless. After all, how can one measure and predict a person’s behavior in the future?

Suicidal behavior is very complex and risk factors can vary with age, gender and ethnic grouping. Research has pinpointed a few risk factors for suicidal behavior. They include:

  • A history of depression and other mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
  • A substance abuse disorder which often occurs along with a mental disorder.

Research shows that these two risk factors account for almost 90% of all suicide deaths.

Other risk factors include:

  • Prior suicide attempt
  • A family history of mental disorders and/or substance abuse
  • A family history of suicide
  • A family history of physical and/or sexual abuse
  • Availability of firearms in the house (this accounts for almost half the suicide deaths in the United States)

As noted earlier, age and gender too play their role with elderly people and men being more likely to have fatal attempts as compared to youth and women.

Research has also shown that brain chemistry plays a role in suicidal behavior. Decreased levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin have been found in people with a history of suicidal behavior and in the brains of suicide victims. These decreased levels are also common in people with depression and mental disorders.

The difficulty in predicting suicidal behavior lies in the fact that people who are thinking of attempting suicide rarely speak about their intentions. Also, not all people in the high risk category are suicidal.

Certain advances in the field of implicit cognition have given mental health professionals a tool with which to gauge the probability of suicidal behavior. These tests attempt to measure an individual’s automatic association of death with their self.

Known as the Self Injury - Implicit Association Test (SI-IAT), it is used to show how people associate things with each other. The individual being tested is shown pairs of words and their immediate reaction is observed. This helps the mental health professional to show whether there is any subconscious linkage.

In a study conducted by researchers, the test was administered to patients undergoing psychiatric treatment in emergency rooms and sought to detect whether the patient connected death to themselves.

The group studied consisted of adolescents who were non-suicidal (38), suicide ideators or people who have contemplated suicide (37) and recent suicide attempters (14).

The study found that patients with a history of suicidal behavior were more likely to link self-injury and self as compared to other patients. They were also more likely to attempt suicide within the next three to six months as compared to patients who made a strong connection between life and self.

Studies like the one mentioned above have shown that implicit cognition can provide an important behavioral marker for suicide risk. The implicit association of self-injury indicates that the odds of attempting suicide within the next six months increase by almost six times. This makes the SI-IAT test a superior one to predictions based on risk factors.

This line of research has excited researchers as it has pointed a way in which suicidal behavior can actually be measured independent of what the patient claims. While it is still a long way from being an infallible measure of an individual’s suicidal tendency, scientists hope that it will one day, provide mental health professionals with a reliable tool to detect and predict suicidal behavior that is unlikely to be reported.


More articles from the General Articles Category