The psychological pathway to suicide attempts: A strategy of control without awareness

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Objectives: This paper aims to identify potential areas for refinement in existing theoretical models of suicide, and introduce a new integrative theoretical framework for understanding suicide, that could inform such refinements.
Methods: Literature on existing theoretical models of suicide and how they contribute to understanding psychological processes involved in suicide was evaluated in a narrative review. This involved identifying psychological processes associated with suicide. Current understanding of these processes is discussed, and suggestions for integration of the existing literature are offered.
Results: Existing approaches to understanding suicide have advanced the current knowledge of suicide in various ways. They have guided valuable research in the following areas: motivations for suicide and the psychological distress which influences suicide attempts; ambivalence about suicide; suicidal individuals’ focus of attention; and ways in which individuals who contemplate suicide differ from individuals who attempt suicide. We outline a new theoretical framework as a means to integrating all of these concepts into the three principles of control, conflict, and awareness. Within this framework, suicide is regarded as occurring due to a long standing conflict between an individual’s personal goals, culminating in an episode of acute loss of control. The new framework posits that the individual then strives to regain control through the means of suicide because of a narrowed awareness of consequences of their actions on other valued goals. This psychological mechanism of limited awareness is posited to be the common pathway by which individuals make a suicide attempt, regardless of which risk factors are present.
Conclusions: This article introduces a theoretical framework that generates several hypotheses for future research, and focuses on psychological processes occurring during immediate crisis. One of the key hypotheses resulting from our predictions on how individuals progress from contemplating to attempting suicide will be tested in an ongoing program of research: Individuals who attempt suicide have a significantly reduced awareness of consequences of suicide, which would negatively impact on their important life goals, values, principles, or ideals, compared to individuals who contemplate suicide. Therapy guided by the new framework may be more flexible, immediate, and client-focused than other therapies for suicidal individuals.

Bibliographical metadata

Original languageEnglish
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 18 Mar 2021