The way we talk about (and try to understand) suicide

Jasmine Mote


Suicide is a difficult topic to talk about. It’s even a difficult topic for psychologists to study. With the tragic passing of Robin Williams, there has been a flurry of grief and thoughtful comments in the media, but there has also been hostility and misinformation. The charitable organization Samaritans, devoted to helping those in distress, recently reminded various media organizations to be cautious of being sensationalist or overly simplistic in their descriptions of suicide. Unfortunately, it is not just artists or famous people or even sad people who deal with suicidal thoughts. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that roughly one person every 40 seconds dies from suicide, with approximately 10-20 times more people attempting suicide each year. Approximately 38,000 people die each year by suicide in the U.S. alone and, as of 2011, suicide was the 10th leading cause of death according to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that over 90% of people who attempt suicide have been diagnosed with a mental illness, with depression, borderline personality disorder, anorexia nervosa, and bipolar disorder ranking amongst the mental illnesses with the highest risk of suicide. In other words, emotion-related mental health issues put people at risk for suicide.Suicide

For the average person, it’s hard to imagine what would make someone take their own life. It’s similarly difficult to study the factors that contribute to suicide. In scientific studies, psychologists usually form a hypothesis about how a factor contributes to an outcome and then manipulate that factor to assess whether it does in fact have the predicted effect on the outcome. Yet for obvious ethical reasons, researchers cannot manipulate factors and see if it impacts people’s desires to attempt suicide. Instead, researchers who study suicide rely on correlational methods to see what factors tend to be associated with suicide in the general public. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the major personality traits that are related to suicidal thoughts and behaviors are strongly linked to emotions. Members of the McGill Group for Suicide Studies conducted a systematic review of 90 studies to examine the personality traits related to suicidal thoughts and behavior. They found that the traits that most strongly differentiated people who attempted suicide from those who did not included a tendency to worry and be anxious, to react to everyday stresses with strong negative emotions, and to experience a variety of emotional “ups and downs” in everyday life (all related to a personality trait known as neuroticism). A predisposition towards impulsivity (particularly impulsivity related to aggression) was also strongly associated with attempting suicide. On the other hand, a tendency to be gregarious and experience positive emotions (related to a trait known as extroversion) was the main factor that differentiated people who did not attempt suicide from those who did. The extent to which people say they feel hopeless ­— the persistent feeling that one’s life will never improve, no matter what someone does — also influences the likelihood of suicide. A separate review by Ryan M. Hill and Jeremy W. Pettit at Florida International University showed that people who feel like they are a burden to their loved ones are also more likely to think about and attempt suicide.

So it follows that suicide is closely related to aspects of emotion and perceptions of one’s place in the world. But it is important to note the largest predictor of suicidal behavior is unrelated to current emotion or personality: history of previous attempts (read more here). As a clinician, the first question you ask someone who reports suicidal ideation is whether or not he/she has intentionally tried to harm him/herself in the past, and if so, how many times. Other risk factors include history of physical or sexual abuse and alcohol abuse or dependence (read more here). These are important questions we can be asking our loved ones and, if you are feeling in distress or in trouble, questions we should be answering for ourselves, too.

The more knowledge we gain on why some people attempt suicide does not make it any less tragic. Feeling intense negative emotions, hopelessness that their life will not get any better, and as if their own existence is burdensome to their loved ones, some people might try to harm themselves in an impulse that, if they could take it back the next day, they might. Suicide is a tragedy that can lead to many strong emotional reactions: sadness, anger, confusion, relief, judgment, hostility, shock. While there may never be a concrete or universal answer as to why someone would choose to end his or her own life, there are many researchers and clinicians out there attempting the unenviable task of trying to identify the risk factors and, importantly, understand how we can better prevent such tragedies from occurring.*

*If you or someone you know needs to connect to helpful resources, there are many available. lists many resources and suicide prevention hotlines in the U.S., including the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK) & the National Hopeline Suicide Prevent Hotline (1-800-SUICIDE, or 784-2433). Additionally, the American Psychological Association maintains a list of research-supported treatments for a variety of mental illnesses. If you are in the UK, you can contact Samaritans. Elsewhere in Europe, you can check to see if your country has a European Union emotional support helpline or you can check the International Association for Suicide Prevention’s website. In Australia, you can contact Suicide Prevention Australia or Lifeline.


Does darkness breed creativity?

Kristen Lindquist

I was inspired this week by the passing of Robin Williams, a comedian whose adroit repartee, clever improvisation, and physical humor touched many lives throughout his career. Williams seems the classic case of the brilliant artist plagued by darkness: he suffered from depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for many years before taking his own life.

We certainly have the idea in our society that brilliance—be it comedic, artistic, or scientific—comes at the cost of happiness. At least anecdotally, many famous individuals suffered bouts of depression or anxiety at one time in their lives and it’s thought that rates of mental illness are 8-10 times higher in writers and artists than in the general population. But does the science of emotion actually bear out the idea that negativity breeds creativity? It turns out, the findings are mixed.14714309947_7e2ae68d07_o

On the one hand, there is evidence that positive, not negative, emotions make you more creative by allowing you to think outside the box. Classic psychology studies reveal that participants who feel positive after watching a funny movie or receiving a gift are more creative on tasks that require broad thinking. One such test is the Remote Associations Test, and it works like this: Participants are given a list of three words and have to think up a fourth that links them all. For instance, they might read, “stool,” “powder,” “ball,” and have to think up a fourth word that is related to them (the answer is “foot”). Positive emotions help you become more creative because they broaden your thoughts, allowing you to see more of the forest and fewer of the individual trees. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that negativity can breed creativity too, particularly for people prone to depression. A study by Modupe Akinola and Wendy Mendes found that negative emotions caused individuals to produce more creative art; this was particularly the case for individuals with a biological vulnerability to depression. The authors first measured participants’ pre-existing levels of a steroid that has been linked to depression called dehydroepiandrosterone-sulfate. (To be clear, merely possessing a biological trait that is linked to depression doesn’t mean you’ll definitely experience depression in your lifetime. Typically you need to have a biological predisposition plus experience a stressful environment to develop clinical depression. See more here.) The authors then caused participants to experience negative, positive, or neutral feelings by giving them unkind, supportive, or no feedback on a mock job interview. Finally, participants were asked to make an artistic collage and real artists later judged the collages for their level of creativity. The authors found that not only did participants in the negative emotion condition produce more creative collages, but that people who had a vulnerability to depression produced the most brilliant work of all when they were feeling negative.

These findings suggest that sadly, darkness can breed creativity. Our hope for the future is that by discovering the links between emotion, creative brilliance, and mental illness, the science of emotion might be better able to help the next generation of Robin Williamses.*

*Sixteen million Americans report symptoms of clinical depression a year and depression is a condition that can be treated. If you are in the United States, and know someone who is severely depressed and might be contemplating suicide, please get in touch with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK. Many places in the world have similar national hotlines and resources.


Fido feels?

Eliza Bliss-Moreau

The emotional lives of dogs has become a hot topic as of late and made some big splashes in the media. In a recently published study, Christine Harris and Caroline Prouvost claim that dogs, like humans, experience jealousy.

The researchers tested pet dogs and their owners while their owners interacted with three different objects:  a toy dog that moved and made noise, a jack-o-lantern figure, and a children’s book that made noise.  Owners were instructed to interact with the objects and ignore their dogs.  When owners were interacting with the toy dog (compared to the other objects), their pets were more likely to touch them or the objects, move between the owner and object, and look more at the owner and object.  Dogs also “snapped” more at the animated toy dog than the other objects.  The authors state that these behaviors are “indicative of” jealously.

The report makes three fairly substantial, critical assumptions—two about the nature of emotion and one about how dogs behave with toys.

3210109272_df9c66d773_oThe first assumption is that behaviors map on to emotions in a specific way.  The idea here is that we can know the internal state of an individual based on his or her behavior.  In other words, if behavior X occurs, then emotion Y is present.  This is an intuitive idea that resonates with people.  But, the scientific evidence suggests this is not true. The problem is that there is a substantial amount of evidence that suggests this is not the case, even in humans who can tell us how they feel while they are behaving.  Overt behaviors don’t relate in specific ways to specific emotions.  Physiological patterns (e.g., what your heart is doing during an emotion) don’t relate in specific ways to specific emotions.  And so on.  Sometimes people (and rodents and dogs and monkeys) fight when they’re fearful and sometimes they run away.  Sometimes people smile when they’re happy, sometimes they make no facial behaviors at all, and sometimes people smile when they’re angry.   So particular behaviors aren’t “indicative of” particular emotions.

The second, related, assumption is that behaviors in animals are indicative of emotional states that are human-like.  This logical leap has been made for decades (particularly in studies of fear).  A freezing rat is said to be a fearful rat.  In actually, we have no way of knowing (yet) whether a freezing rat is experiencing human like fear at all.  Freezing is a fairly simple neurobiological reflex.  It’s hard to equate it with human experiences of emotion. Like for example, the experience you might have when you hear that a plane has crashed and your lover was on it, or the feeling you might have when you’re walking down a dark alley and hear heavy footsteps behind you.  Making the assumption that rat freezing is the same as one of those human experiences is a fairly large (and as I and others argue, problematic) logical leap.

The third assumption is that dogs’ behaviors differed with the toy dog because of emotion and not some other psychological state.  But there are a number of other possibilities.  For example, it’s possible that dogs were simply more interested in the toy dog because it was more complex or interesting or because it looked like a dog.  It’s possible that the dogs wished to play with it themselves, or were confused because it emulated a dog without being one.  Since the dogs were never tested with the objects and without the owner, or when the owner was not paying attention to the toy, none of these hypotheses can be excluded.

So, can Fido feel jealous? Possibly.  Humans have selectively breed dogs over thousands of years, creating modern day dog that is particularly responsive to human emotions, gestures, and eye-gaze.  Some of these capacities are unmatched even in our closest genetic relatives—the nonhuman primates.  Dogs also have fairly complex brains that may be capable of the computations needed for a complex socially oriented emotion like jealously.

But, based on this single study alone, the jealously jury is definitely still out.