Two recent studies by Harvard psychologists deliver promising data from 2 tests that may help clinicians predict suicidal behavior. The markers in these new tests involve a patient’s attention to suicide-related stimuli and the measure of association with death or suicide. In the first study, lead investigator Matthew K. Nock, PhD and colleagues adapted the Stroop test and measured the speed at which subjects identified the color of words appearing on a computer screen. It was found that suicidal persons focused more on suicide-related words than neutral words. Suicide Stroop scores predicted 6-month follow-up suicide attempts well over traditionally accepted risk factors such as clinicians’ insight into the likelihood of a patient to attempt suicide, history of suicide attempts, or patient-reporting methods.
In the second study, also led by Dr Nock, researchers used an adapted version of Harvard psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji’s Implicit Association Test. This test gauged subjects’ reaction time to semantic stimuli of word pairings that appeared on a computer screen. The time measurement tested the strength of unconscious associations between words related to “self” and also to words related to “life” or “death/suicide.” Those participants with implicit association of death/suicide and self were 6 times more likely to attempt suicide at 6-month follow-up than “psychiatrically distressed” persons who had not attempted suicide.
These computerized tests could be alternatives to traditional patient self-reporting methods. Current test methods are often inaccurate because of a patient’s tendency to conceal suicidal ideation. The newer tests are easily administered and of short duration. Furthermore, they generate quick results that identify behavioral markers outside the biological markers commonly used (eg, depression, family history). Study results were reported in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology and in Psychological Science.
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Inklings of suicide, by Steve Bradt, Harvard Staff Writer
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