First Major Study of Suicide Motivations to Advance Prevention
June 13, 2013—A University of British Columbia study sheds important new light on why people attempt suicide and provides the first scientifically tested measure for evaluating the motivations for suicide.
Published in the official journal of the American Association of Suicidology, the work gives doctors and researchers important new resources to advance suicide prevention, improve treatments, and reduce the likelihood of further attempts.
"Knowing why someone attempted suicide is crucial—it tells us how to best help them recover," says David Klonsky, of the UBC Department of Psychology. "This new tool will help us to move beyond the current "one-size-fits-all" approach to suicide prevention, which is essential. Different motivations require different treatments and interventions."
The study, based on 120 participants who recently attempted suicide, suggests many motivations believed to play important roles in suicide are actually relatively uncommon. For example, suicide attempts were rarely the result of impulsivity, a cry for help, or an effort to solve a financial or practical problem. Of all motivations for suicide, the two found to be universal in all participants were hopelessness and overwhelming emotional pain.
The study also finds that suicide attempts influenced by social factors—such as efforts to elicit help or influence others—generally exhibited a less pronounced intent to die, and were carried out with a greater chance of rescue. In contrast, suicide attempts motivated by internal factors—such as hopelessness and unbearable pain—were performed with the greatest desire to die.
"It may be surprising to some, but focusing on motivations is a new approach in the field of suicide research—and urgently needed," says Klonsky. "Until now, the focus has been largely on the types of people attempting suicide—their demographics, their genetics—without actually exploring the motivations. Ours is the first work to do this in a systematic way."
The study, led by UBC PhD candidate Alexis May, was published by Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, the official journal of the American Association of Suicidology.
The study's 120 participants were outpatients and undergraduate students who had attempted suicide with "intent to die" within the past three years.
For the study, participants completed the questionnaire, which asks questions related to 10 different motivations for attempted suicide. Researchers used a series of analyses to ensure the questionnaire yields reliable and valid information about suicide attempt motivations.
The resulting questionnaire is now available for clinical use. The Inventory of Motivations for Suicide Attempts (IMSA) is the most accurate and first scientifically tested tool for evaluating a person's motivations for suicide.
Despite massive prevention efforts, suicide rates have increased globally over the last 50 years, with almost one million people taking their lives, annually.
May, A. M. and Klonsky, E. D. (2013), "Assessing Motivations for Suicide Attempts: Development and Psychometric Properties of the Inventory of Motivations for Suicide Attempts." Suicide and Life-Threat Behavior. doi: 10.1111/sltb.12037