Personality and Suicide
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The term suicide can be used both narrowly and broadly. In the narrow sense, suicide refers to the actions of people who possess a mature concept of death and who kill themselves intentionally. In the broad sense, the suicidal impulse may operate unconsciously and motivate such behaviors as substance abuse and risk-taking behaviors that increase the probability of death. Other individuals engage in self-destructive acts but survive: attempted suicides, parasuicides, or deliberate self-injurers.
There are many factors which may contribute to an individual choosing to die by suicide, including genetic and biochemical factors, childhood experiences, interpersonal relationships and stressors. This entry focuses on personality factors.
The most notable personal characteristic associated with suicide is psychiatric disturbance. Persons with an affective disorder (e.g., depression or bipolar disorder) have a very high suicide rate. Those with schizophrenia and those who are substance abusers also have high suicide rates. It has also been documented that some personality disorders are associated with a higher risk of suicidal behavior, especially borderline personality disorder.
Depression can refer to a mood as well as a psychiatric disorder, and the mood of depression is strongly associated with and predictive of suicidality. In those suffering from any psychiatric disorder, the level of depression predicts the degree of suicidality. Depression can also be a trait variable (i.e., long-lasting and stable) as well as a state variable (i.e., temporary and situation dependent), and depressive individuals have a high risk of suicide. Despite the higher risk of suicide among those with a psychiatric disorder, the majority of people diagnosed with a disorder do not go on to die by suicide, indicating other factors may be at play.
Personality Traits and Suicide
Several personality traits have been associated with suicidal behavior. In a review of research on this topic, Brezo et al. (2006) found that hopelessness, neuroticism, and extraversion were most consistently associated with suicidal behaviors, whereas aggression, impulsivity, anger, irritability, hostility, and anxiety were possible predictors of suicidal behaviors but required further research. Occasional studies have implicated perfectionism, low self-esteem, poor problem-solving skills, irrational thinking patterns, and belief in an external locus of control. With regard to irrational thinking patterns, research has found that constriction (or tunnel vision which leads to narrowing of options) and dichotomous thinking (either-or and all-or-nothing thinking) are common in suicidal individuals.
For the Big Five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism), in a large study of college students, Kerby (2003) found that estimates of the probability of suicide were associated with high neuroticism, low extraversion, and low agreeableness. Lester (1991) studied the 1,500 children in the Lewis Terman study of gifted children and found that the children rated as more conscientious at the age of 10 were more to likely to die by suicide later in life.
Aaron Beck (Rush and Beck 1978) has suggested that one component of depression that is particularly useful as a predictor of suicidality is hopelessness, a feeling that life will not get better in the future. In a study of patients who had attempted suicide, hopelessness was a stronger predictor of later suicide than was the level of depression (Lester et al. 1979). There are individuals in whom high hopelessness seems to be a stable (trait) characteristic, especially those with personality disorders and those abusing alcohol, who are often chronically suicidal.
Sufficiently strong protective factors can balance out the negative impact of risk factors and thus reduce the risk of suicide. Protective factors are not necessarily the opposites of risk factors (e.g., extraversion versus introversion) or their absence. Protective factors include reasons for living, resilience, religiosity (especially intrinsic religiosity [Lester 2017]), spirituality, and having a sense of purpose and meaning to life. Research has documented the relevance of reasons for living which include: survival and coping beliefs, responsibility to family, child-related concerns, fear of suicide, fear of social disapproval, and moral objections. Among protective factors on the interpersonal level are the availability and suitability of social support from family and others, and involvement in stable and significant relationships (including marriage).
Suicide and Temperament
Temperament refers to characteristics present from birth that vary from person to person (e.g., shyness and inhibitory control) that are typically consistent across situations and stable over time, as opposed to personality which is acquired through experience and builds off of temperament. Building on the concept of temperament, first formulated by Hippocrates and adopted by Emil Kraepelin and Ernst Kretschmer, Akiskal proposed the existence of four major temperaments: depressive, hyperthymic, cyclothymic, and irritable (Akiskal and Akiskal 2005). In a study of psychiatric inpatients, Pompili et al. (2008) compared those patients judged to be at risk for suicide with those who were not at risk and found that those at risk obtained higher scores on measures of the irritability and cyclothymic temperaments and lower scores on the measure of the hyperthymic temperament. Another relevant dimension of temperament, effortful control, involves the self-regulation of emotional reactivity and behavior. Lower effortful control has been associated with impulsivity, one risk factor for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
In a stress-diathesis model of suicidal behavior, personality traits, whether physiologically or experientially determined, may contribute to the diathesis (a predispositional vulnerability), making suicidal behavior more likely when individuals encounter stressors. However, personality traits may not be, in and of themselves, directly related to suicidal behaviors. Rather, personality traits may be linked to other well-established risk factors for suicide. For example, personality traits such as neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness may contribute to the feelings of thwarted belongingness and perceived burdensomeness, two risk factors predictive of suicidal thoughts in Joiner’s (2005) Interpersonal-Psychological Theory of Suicide. Effortful control (in the form of impulsivity) may be linked to Joiner’s concept of the acquired capability for suicide which is used to explain the transition from suicidal thoughts to suicidal behaviors. Personality and temperament may play a role in the development of suicidality at all stages, from the motivation to die to the decision to act on that motivation, making it an important factor for clinicians and interventions to target in both assessment and prevention efforts.
- Joiner, T. E. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
- Pompili, M., Rihmer, Z., Akiskal, H. S., Innamorati, M., Iliceto, P., Akiskal, K. K., Lester, D., Narciso, V., Ferracuti, S., Tatarelli, R., De Pisa, E., & Girardi, P. (2008). Temperament and personality dimensions in suicidal and nonsuicidal psychiatric inpatients. Psychopathology, 41, 313–321.CrossRefGoogle Scholar