Suicide is defined as a self-inflicted injury with the intent to kill oneself.
Up until the publication of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s Le Suicide, the subject had not been systematically studied. Since Durkheim’s book, however, efforts have been made to understand why people want to—and do—kill themselves.
Suicide’s Link to Depression
Suicide has been closely linked with depression. Research studies have shown that suicide attempters are usually depressed, and depressed people are often suicidal.
There are even others who tried to limit the relationship further, suggesting that among the depressed population, those who are delusionally depressed are at the highest risk for suicide.
However, the problem of false positives and false negatives has been raised as well; not all suicides were clinically depressed, and not all clinically depressed patients were suicidal. This question led to a hypothesis by cognitive therapist Aaron Beck, et al. that the degree of hopelessness, instead of depression per se, may account for a person’s decision to end his life.
According to Beck in his journal article on a ten-year study of suicidal patients, hopelessness is a core characteristic of depression and serves as the link between depression and suicide. It is a cognitive distortion that activates the patients’ negative patterns of thinking to the point that they see suicide as the only answer to their pain.
Predictors of Suicide
Recent studies have likewise concluded that the severity of depression, hopelessness, and presence of suicidal ideation are strong predictors for an eventual suicide. Aside from hopelessness, though, there are other cognitive distortions identified by researchers which are possible predictors or risk factors in an eventual suicide attempt, such as rigid thinking.
Cognitive rigidity is the inability to identify problems and their corresponding solutions. Suicide attempters then, are characterized as people who lack the ability to be flexible when it comes to coping with the stresses in their lives.
This type of thinking is also identified by Edwin Shneidman in the majority of suicidal cases he has studied. He calls this a constriction in thinking, a tunnelling of options available to the suicidal individual.
Other Cognitive Distortions Seen in Suicidal People
Other researchers also identified other cognitive distortions. Schotte and Clum proposed that individuals lacking the ability to think of possible solutions to their problems experience feelings of hopelessness when faced with a highly stressful solution. Their hopelessness in such situations (like being in prison) thus places them at high risk for suicide.
Other researchers carried Schotte and Clum’s study to another direction, suggesting that poor interpersonal problem-solving skills discriminate suicide attempters. The tendency of the attempters to focus on their problems and the lack of their perceived ability to solve these problems put them at high risk for eventual suicide as well.
Two other researchers, Sadowski and Kelley, also theorized that suicide attempters are not only lacking in social problem-solving abilities, they are also specifically deficit in problem orientation, the initial step of the problem solving process.
Predictably, attempters are deficient as well in the subsequent steps of problem solving, such as in the generation of alternatives, decision making, and solution identification and verification.
These cognitive problems are seen not only in adult patients, but also in children who were hospitalized for suicidal ideations. They showed poor cognitive coping strategies, and these were correlated with their low self-esteem, hopelessness, and perception of their family environment as unsupportive and stressful.
Beck, A.T., Steer, R.A., Kovacs, M., & Garrison, B. (1985). Hopelessness, and eventual suicide: A 10-year prospective study of patients hospitalized with suicidal ideation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 142(5), 559-563.
Patsiokas, A.T., Clum, G.A., & Luscomb,R.L. (1979). Cognitive characteristics of suicide attempters. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 47(3), 478-484.
Roose, S.P., Glassman, A.H., & Walsh, B.T., et al. (1983). Depression, delusions, and suicide. American Journal of Psychiatry, 140(9), 1159-1162.
Schotte, D.E. & Clum, G.A. (1987). Problem-solving skills in suicidal psychiatric patients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55(1), 49-54.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be used for diagnosis or to guide treatment without the opinion of a health professional. Any reader who is concerned about his or her health should contact a doctor for advice.