On World Suicide Prevention Day - Can Your Words Kill You?

Can psychology predict suicide? World Suicide Prevention Day 10 September 2015

Posted Sep 09, 2015

The statistics fluctuate depending on the year in question, but roughly speaking, in recent years, between 800,000 to 1 million people die due to suicide  annually, worldwide. Yet there are many more who attempt suicide - for each individual who takes his/her own life, at least 20 attempt to do so, according to statistics from the World Health Organisation.

Again, depending on the year in question, the statistics will vary, but suicide has a global mortality rate of approximately 16 per 100,000 people in recent years, and was the second leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds globally in 2012, and in that year was the 15th leading cause of death across the lifespan. 

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

The very fact suicide is a lot more common than is usually realised, reveals that it's a problem surrounded by myths and stereotypes, often far from the reality.

For example, it may come as a surprise to appreciate that it's well established from psychological research that there is a link between fame and suicide. 

David Lester, a professor of psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, has conducted much research establishing this link. In the journal 'Perceptual and Motor Skills' he published a review of research entitled 'Suicide in Eminent Persons'. He cited various surveys establishing an average suicide rate in the well-known of around 3%, considerably higher than in the general population. One study focusing on eminent people from the 20th Century found a suicide rate of 5%, hundreds of times higher than the suicide rate in the UK's general population.

Why are the famous so prone to suicide?

Perhaps being famous, or becoming well-known, might be stressful.

However, psychological thinking is swinging towards a new idea - there could be an aspect of personality which drives particular people to become eminent, which is the very same factor that also elevates chances of suicide.

For example, psychologists Sheri Johnson, Charles Carver and Ian Gotlib recenly published a study which has found that people with bipolar disorder (the same diagnosis as reportedly given to Stephen Fry, a famous UK broadcaster and writer who has confessed to a suicide attempt), had higher ambitions for popular fame. Bipolar disorder has been found to be over-represented amongst the creative and the famous, especially those from artistic fields.

These researchers, based at Stanford University, University of California and the University of Miami, used a scale termed 'Willingly Approached Set of Statistically Unlikely Pursuits', which measures desire for extremely ambitious (difficult to achieve) life goals, such as becoming the focus of books and TV shows. Goals of great recognition, such as achieving fame, multi-millionaire rank, or political influence, were much more likely to be found in those with Bipolar Disorder.

This study, 'Elevated Ambitions for Fame Among Persons Diagnosed With Bipolar I Disorder', published in the 'Journal of Abnormal Psychology', suggests the drive to achieve difficult ambitions arises partly from this diagnosis.

But does this also explain propensity to suicide?

Of all the various talents the famous UK actor and writer Stephen Fry displays, perhaps the most pertinent to his suicide attempt may come as a surprise. See his recently published 'The Ode Less Travelled - Unlocking the Poet Within'. The attached publicity for the book confirms that he has 'written long poems, for his own private pleasure'. The book 'invites you to discover the incomparable delights of metre, rhyme and verse forms'.

Particularly high rates of suicide and bipolar illness have been found in poets. Some psychologists even contend that writing poetry may not be good for your mental health, particularly if you suffer certain predisposing mental vulnerabilities.

In a study entitled 'Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and Non-suicidal Poets', psychologists Shannon Stirman and James Pennebaker, from the University of Pennsylvania and University of Texas, point out some psychologists believe Sylvia Plath's poetry may have undermined her coping skills, which in the face of highly stressful life events, possibly contributed to her death through suicide.

Yet writing, particularly poetry, is seen in some circles as a 'release' and therefore therapeutic.

Stirman and Pennebaker probed further. They analysed the words in the poems of suicidal poets, investigating a theory that it might be possible to predict which poet is going to kill themselves, from the word choice in their poetry.

These psychologists analysed a total of 156 poems by eminent poets who committed suicide, and compared them with equally famous poets who did not.

Overall, the suicidal group of poets used more first-person singular (I, me, my) words in their poetry than did the control group. Suicidal poets also used the words 'we', 'us', and 'our' more in the early and middle phases of their career, than did the non-suicidal group. The percentage of use dropped sharply below that of the non-suicide group, during the late periods of their career (ie just before the suicide).

The authors of this study, published in the journal 'Psychosomatic Medicine', suggest that the finding of more first-person singular self-references ('I', 'me', 'my') in their poetry throughout their careers, means that self-references do not increase over time in the suicidal poets. Stirman and Pennebaker contend this means that the suicidal poets' level of preoccupation with self is not due to increasing levels of fame or recognition of their work over time.

Self-reference could be a measure of self-obsession. Maybe getting a lot of attention makes you self-obsessed - or could it be that being self-preoccupied leads you to consider becoming famous? Certainly this self-centredness doesn't appear good for you, if it's linked with suicide propensity.

Stirman and Pennebaker further wonder if their pattern of findings suggest there could even be a kind of 'suicide fingerprint', in patterns of word usage by those who are predisposed to suicide, or becoming more suicidal.

It's perhaps even possible such a 'write fingerprint' might show up in non-poets writings, as in text messages and emails.

However, their main finding is that this 'suicide fingerprint', appears present from the beginning of a poet's career. In other words, suicide and fame might be connected through psychological characteristics present in the personality from the beginning.

The latest evidence is psychological disturbance might drive desire for fame, and this could lie behind the high rates of suicide in the illustrious.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Stephen Fry apparently revealed that he had made a serious suicide attempt in order to help de-stigmatise mental illness. Fry is a patron and supporter of mental health charities and has previously disclosed suffering from manic-depression, or mood swings, now termed bipolar disorder. 

He is extremely successful in many different areas of life; a 'national treasure'. How can someone popular, wealthy, busy and successful, end up feeling hopeless and despairing?

Suicide is surrounded by many myths and prejudices, and one of the purposes of World Suicide Prevention Day might be to help challenge the stereotypes that continue to hamper understanding and sympathy for this all too common tragedy.

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Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are joint podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.

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A version of this article appeared in The Huffington Post