An important characteristic in the development of suicidal behaviour is that it cannot be linked to only one causal factor. Suicidal behaviour is a consequence of complex interactions of many risk factors.
Psychological characteristics have a special role in the development of the suicidal process, including those associated with our thinking (cognition).
People may differ in the way that they experience, feel, and understand the world around them. Different people can experience the same situation, but perceive it in different ways. For example, a situation could be perceived as tragic and hopeless by one individual, while it might be accepted as a challenge by someone else.
Differences in how individuals perceive experiences are derived from our cognitive and mental characteristics, such as: thinking, attention, memory, understanding, judgement, speaking, learning, computing, etc.
The feeling of defeat, entrapment in a situation, and insolvability of problems
The way an individual experiences and interprets events and the world around them is very important for the development of suicidal behaviour. The psychological risk factors for suicide are explained by the theory “The arrested flight model – cry of pain”. The theory was developed by a psychologist Mark Williams. According to this theory, suicidal behaviour is a consequence of a situation in which the following factors are present:
- stimuli from the environment, giving us a sense of failure in which we feel humiliated or defeated. Due to these feelings a strong desire to escape and/or withdraw develops
- feeling that we cannot withdraw from the situation and that we are trapped in it
- feeling that the situation cannot be resolved, will last forever, and sensing the absence of rescue factors.
In such situations, feelings of helplessness and despair may be triggered. These feelings can negatively impact future experiences.
People who don’t have serious problems or mental distress may feel desperate and helpless for a short time, but will then work through their problems.
People can solve their problems by re-directing their attention to things with a positive influence. They may remember how they solved similar problems in the past or that this is a temporary situation that will pass sooner or later. However, this might be different for people experiencing serious mental distress. If they have viewed themselves and the world in a negative manner for a prolonged time, they may be convinced that the future won’t bring anything good which may lead to despair. This can trigger the desire to withdraw or escape, and promote suicidal thoughts.
Issues with problem solving and the risk of suicide
Unlike people who have well developed cognitive skills and problem solving strategies (as described above), people who are experiencing serious mental distress may have reduced cognitive abilities.
For people who are thinking about suicide, it is typical that they are more attentive to negative stimuli or events. They perceive negative stimuli faster and interpret neutral stimuli negatively.
At the same time they have difficulties solving problems, as they have difficulty remembering how they solved similar problems in the past. Since they assess and evaluate events due to mental distress differently, they don’t expect any positive events for themselves in the future. Due to these factors, their emotional distress can deepen even further.
How to act?
The content of events is not necessarily the trigger of suicidal behaviour. What is important is the manner in which an individual experiences and interprets the events. The manner in which a person at risk for suicide interprets the events is predominantly negative. In order to change both the experience and interpretation of the events, an appropriate therapy can be helpful. Therapy can vary from psychological interventions to pharmaceutical treatments. It is important to seek help as soon as possible.