Friday, October 5, 2012

Psychology 101 and suicide

The following comes from an article about factors in suicide printed in the journal - Australian Institute of Criminology. It cites various research findings

Locality. For much of this century suicide rates have been higher in Australian cities than in rural areas.

Media. The average daily rate of suicide in Australia increases significantly after the publication of suicide stories in the Australian media.

Economic Cycles. In this century suicide trends in Australia show a strong correlation
between unemployment and the suicide rate.

Occupation. The general pattern in Australia is that those in unskilled and semi-skilled blue-collar occupations which are characterised by low job autonomy, greater external supervision, less on-the-job training, poorer promotional possibilities, lower wage levels and greater sensitivity to market forces tend to have high suicide rates.

Migration and Ethnicity. The suicide rate of overseas-born is significantly higher than Australian born and among the immigrant groups from different countries suicide rates also vary considerably.

Temporal Variation. The incidence of suicide appears to follow a distinct weekly cycle. Monday tends to have the highest average daily suicide followed by Tuesday, and Saturday has the lowest average.



When I was a young, fresh faced psychology student we were taught about the science of psychology. This was serious business I can assure you. One thing that they drilled into our little, pliable, malleable brains was the difference between correlation and cause and effect. This we were told was one of the basic principles of science and one must always, and at all times keep them separate. It was tattooed in our little minds for ever. And quite rightly so, one could say.

The six factors listed above are all correlations, none of them are statements about cause and effect. Most suicides occur on a Monday. This is a statement of correlation and one must never, I was told in psychology 101, assume this means Mondays for some reason cause people to suicide. That would be a statement of cause and effect.

What causes odd behaviour is different to what correlates with odd behaviour. "Wearing hats makes men try and mow the roads".

Media reports on suicide correlate with an increase in the suicide rate. This is not saying that media reports cause people to be suicidal. Again one differentiates between correlation and cause and effect. Unfortunately in the area of suicide people often mix up correlation with cause and effect. This is commonly done when depression is discussed. One often hears comments like depression causes suicide.

Depression has never caused suicide. We are cited statistics like 5% to 10% of people with major depression will die by suicide. Major depression is the worst kind of depression where the person is really, really depressed. 

However, and this is major problem in the literature on suicide, these statistics also tell us that 90% to 95% of people with major depression do not die from suicide. If depression caused suicide how come the vast majority of people who are the most severely depressed never kill themselves in suicide.

Some people with depression suicide and some do not. In the vast majority of the literature you never get this explained. They can’t explain it because they mix up cause and effect with correlation. However in my book - Working with suicidal individuals - I provide a clear explanation for it, which I discuss at length. A suicidal person is one who has made the suicide decision early in life. Some people make such a decision and some do not. 


This is now a statement about cause and effect. What causes people to be suicidal is they have made one of the seven possible suicide decisions. What depression, media reports, Mondays, stress and so forth do do, is make an already suicidal person more likely to act on the suicidal urges. Thus one can say depression has never made anyone suicidal. If someone has not made the early suicide decision then no matter how depressed they get they will not suicide.

This has significant implications for treatment. To deal with a person’s suicidality one must not get distracted into treating the depression, one needs to treat the early decision that was made.



  1. You nailed it with this article. Thank you for explaining it so clearly.From my own experience I can say I may have made an early suicide decision since I was a kid/teenager when ever something went wrong (and a lot of things did) my thoughts would immediately turn to 'I want to die' I never ever thought to act on it until I had major depression and then suddenly those thoughts were no longer thoughts but a driving force I could no longer ignore.

  2. This post is a very well stated explanation. I’m working on a correlational research project. So many times when people ask me what my study is about, they start talking about cause and effect. I’m always careful not to say either of those words because it just adds fuel to the fire. I think it all stems from the human desire to identify problems and fix them.

    Love that photo of the lady in the woods :) She must have been sitting there for a very long time.

  3. Hello Just me, Thanx for you candor about yourself. I am interested in your statement that you feel you made the suicide decision early in life. Can you go further and articulate which of the 7 suicide decisions it is. It can be more than one.

    If you don’t change I will kill myself
    If things get too bad I will kill myself
    I will show you even if it kills me
    I will get you to kill me
    I will kill myself by accident
    I will almost die (over and over) to get you to love me
    I will kill myself to hurt you

    Can you describe in your mind how you think about suicide and the role it plays in your life and view of the world?



  4. I agree with you KYLady about peoples desire to look for cause and effect. It is probably safe to say that humans have a very strong desire to know - why. If most people suicide on a monday, many of us have a strong desire to ask - Why Monday? Probably an instinctual part of our psychology.

    I hope your research project goes well


  5. I can't say for sure but I think the one that resonates with me the most is 'If things get too bad I will kill myself' the thoughts were almost like a safety blanket I could hold onto because no matter how traumatic things got there was always a way out. I think a lot was about control when I was so powerless as a kid to stop the abuse happening to me it was like that was the one and only thing I had control over - the decision to end my life.

  6. Thanks for your comment Just me.

    In the counselling industry what you are describing is what is known as an escape hatch. Suicide as an escape hatch, and indeed you talk about a safety blanket. In my book I discuss this in some detail because there is a strong view held by some in counselling that you must close the clients escape hatches. The three main ones being suicide, homicide and going crazy.

    I put the case against the mandatory closing of clients suicide escape hatch, because if you take away the escape hatch for some, the person feels worse and more vulnerable.

    I also find it interesting how you describe an instance where the suicide decision is related to a sense of control. Not only do you perceive the positive effects of suicide being an escape hatch, but the suicide decision also gave you a more robust psychology in that it allowed you to have a feeling of control.

    Interesting comments you have given


  7. I want to kill myself on Fridays. Any day during the week people will quickly notice I am missing faster than they would know on the weekend. Friday also feels like I completed the week and am not leaving loose ends.

  8. I want to kill myself on Fridays. Any day during the week people will quickly notice I am missing faster than they would know on the weekend. Friday also feels like I completed the week and am not leaving loose ends.

  9. Well that is not good Annalynn. I have enjoyed our skype chats that we used to do