Research has already uncovered several risk factors for suicide. However, risk factors such as an individual’s self-report, a clinician’s predictions of whether or not someone will commit suicide, and a history of suicide are not always accurate in predicting whether an individual will attempt to commit suicide. New research indicates that two new tests can help more accurately predict an individual’s suicide risk.
A Harvard University research team lead by Mathew K. Nock, a psychology professor at the University, conducted two studies testing two different assessments to determine their usefulness in predicting suicide risk among patients. The two recent studies are unique in that they focus on assessing behavioral rather than on biological markers of suicidal behavior.
In one study, the Implicit Association Test, developed by Mahzarin R. Banaji, a psychologist at Harvard University, was adapted. The researchers utilized 154 participants’ reaction times to semantic stimuli to measure their automatic mental associations. In the adapted test, pairs of words were shown on a computer screen and participants’ reaction times were used to measure their automatic mental associations between themselves and either words related to, “death/suicide,” or, “life.”
The more rapidly a participant responded to a pair of words shown on the screen, the stronger his or her unconscious association between these particular words. For instance, a participant who responds very quickly to a pair of words associating onself to a word related to death/suicide would have a strong unconscious association between the two words.
Interestingly, the researchers discovered that participants who had stronger associations between themselves and death/suicide words were six times more likely to attempt to commit suicide within the following six months than participants who had stronger associations between themselves and life words. Nock asserted that, “These findings suggest that a person’s implicit cognition may guide which behavior he or she chooses to cope with extreme distress.”
In a second study, the researchers modified the Stroop test to assess participants’ suicide risk. One-hundred twenty-four individuals in a psychiatric emergency department took the modified Stroop test where they had to tell the researcher the color of the words on a computer screen. The researchers measured the reaction times of the participants as they took this test.
The researchers discovered that individuals who were suicidal paid more attention to suicidal words than they did to neutral words. Christine B. Cha, a doctoral student of psychology at Harvard University and co-author of the study asserted, “Suicide Stroop scores predicted six-month follow-up suicide attempts above and beyond well-known risk factors such as a history of suicide attempts, patients’ reported likelihood of attempts, and clinicians’ predictions regarding patients’ likelihood of attempt.”
These modified tests appear to be good indicators of suicide risk. You may learn more about these studies by visiting the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Psychological Science, where these studies are published.
Psych Central: New Predictors of Suicide Risk: