Many professionals and media sources have proclaimed that suicide is a 100% preventable problem. Although I completely disagree with that message—and find it terribly offensive—I also believe that we should do what we can to prevent suicide.
Recently I was asked to write a journal article summarizing the conditions or dimensions that commonly contribute to suicide. To give you a flavor of these dimensions, below I’ve included brief descriptions of each one. However, I also want to emphasize that suicidologists and suicide researchers agree that death by suicide is nearly always unpredictable. Suicide is unpredictable despite the fact that, afterwards, many people and professionals will feel as though they should have “seen the signs” and done something more to prevent the death.
Knowing the following eight dimensions is useful when they’re used to enhance your compassion and capacity to collaborate with individual clients and persons. They’re not designed to be used as suicide risk factors or predictors.
Here are the eight dimensions.
Unbearable Psychological/Emotional Distress (Shneidman’s Psychache)
Shneidman (1985) originally identified “psychache” as the central psychological force leading to suicide. He defined psychache as negative emotions and psychological pain, referring to it as “the dark heart of suicide; no psychache, no suicide” (p. 200). In more modern patient-oriented language, psychache is aptly described as unbearable emotional distress. Unbearable distress can involve many factors, or center around one main trauma, loss, or other psychologically activating experiences; it may be accompanied by distinct cognitive, emotional, or physical symptoms.
Problem-Solving Impairment (Shneidman’s Mental Constriction)
Depression or low mood is commonly associated with problem-solving impairments. Originally, Shneidman called these impairments mental constriction, and defined them as “a pathological narrowing of the mind’s focus . . . which takes the form of seeing only two choices: either something painfully unsatisfactory or cessation” (1984, pp. 320–321). Researchers have reported support for Shneidman’s original ideas about mental constriction (Ghahramanlou-Holloway et al., 2012; Lau, Haigh, Christensen, Segal, & Taube-Schiff, 2012).
Agitation or Arousal (Shneidman’s Perturbation)
Agitation or arousal is consistently associated with death by suicide (Ribeiro, Silva, & Joiner, 2014). Shneidman (1985) originally used the term perturbation to refer to internal agitation that moves patients toward suicidal acts. When combined with high psychological distress and impaired problem-solving, agitation or arousal seems to push patients toward acting on suicide as a solution to their distress. Trauma, insomnia, drug use (including starting on a trial of serotonin-reuptake inhibitors), and many other factors can elevate agitation (Healy, 2009).
Thwarted Belongingness and Perceived Burdensomeness
Joiner (2005) developed an interpersonal theory of suicide. Part of his theory includes thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness as contextual interpersonal factors linked to suicide. Thwarted belongingness involves unmet wishes for social connection. Perceived burdensomeness occurs when patients see themselves as flawed in ways that make them a burden to others.
Hopelessness is a broad cognitive variable related to problem-solving impairment and linked to elevated suicide risk (Hagan, Podlogar, Chu, & Joiner, 2015; Strosahl, Chiles, & Linehan, 1992). Hopelessness is the belief that whatever distressing life conditions might be present will never improve. In many cases, patients hold a hopeless view—even when a rational justification for hope exists.
Joiner (2005) and Klonsky and May (2015) have described how fear of death or aversion to physical pain is a natural suicide deterrent present in most individuals. However, at least two situations or patterns can desensitize patients to suicide and reduce natural suicide deterrence. First, some patients may be predisposed to high pain tolerance. This predisposition is likely biogenetic, as in blood-injury phobias (Klonsky & May, 2015). Second, patients may acquire, through desensitization, a numbness that reduces natural fears of pain and suicide. Chronic pain, self-mutilation, and other experiences can be desensitizing.
Suicide Plan or Intent
In and of itself, suicide ideation is a poor predictor of suicide. Nevertheless, ideation is an important marker to explore with patients; exploring ideation can lead to asking directly about whether patients have a suicide plan. Suicide plans may or may not be associated with suicide intent. Some patients will keep a potential suicide plan on reserve, just in case their psychological pain grows unbearable. These patients do not intend to die by suicide, but they want the option and sometimes they have thought through the method(s) they might employ.
Access to a lethal means is a situational dimension that substantially contributes to suicide risk. Firearms are far and away the most lethal suicide method. Specifically, Swanson, Bonnie, and Appelbaum (2015) reported that firearms result in an 84% case fatality rate. Although firearms can quickly become a politicized issue in the U.S., researchers have repeatedly found that access to firearms greatly magnifies suicide risk (Anestis & Houtsma, 2017).