A new study suggests that self-compassion is uniquely associated with self-reported suicidal behaviors, but not with implicit suicidality. This research was published in the Journal of American College Health.
Globally, suicide accounts for approximately 1 million deaths per year, with over 40,000 annually in the United States. Among college students and college aged individuals it is the second leading cause of death. Suicide risk factors, including suicidal ideation, suicide planning and suicide attempts are especially common among this cohort.
“Suicide is a tragic and serious public health concern, especially among college-aged individuals. Understanding why individuals are suicidal is essential for knowing how to decrease the prevalence of suicide,” said Richard Zeifman (@RickZeifman), a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Ryerson University. “While self-criticism has received significant attention for its role as a contributor to suicidality, limited research has explored the relationship between suicidality and self-compassion, which is an important psychological process that allows people to self-soothe when experiencing suffering.”
A total of 130 undergraduate students participated in this research. Participants completed the Death/Suicide Implicit Association Test, which assesses automatic self-identification with death and suicide. This was followed by a survey which included questions regarding demographic information, self-compassion and self-criticism (e.g., “I try to be loving towards myself when I’m feeling emotional pain”), depression severity (e.g., “I couldn’t seem to experience any positive feelings at all”), and hopelessness (e.g., “All I can see ahead of me is unpleasantness rather than pleasantness”).
Self-reported suicidal behaviors were also assessed, including previous suicide attempts and suicidal communication, frequency of suicidal ideation, as well as likelihood of a future suicide attempt.
Zeifman and colleagues found that self-compassion was negatively associated with self-reported suicidal behaviors. This association held even when controlling for self-criticism, hopelessness, and depression severity.
“Self-criticism and self-compassion may both play an important role in contributing to suicidal behaviors among college students. While more research remains necessary, cultivating one’s self-compassion, and being less critical of one’s self when experiencing suffering, may be an important means of decreasing suicidal behaviors,” Zeifman told PsyPost.
However, the researchers found no significant relationship between self-compassion and implicit suicidality. It could be that implicit suicidality and self-reported suicidal behaviors simply tap into distinct aspects of suicide risk. Another possibility is that the Death/Suicide Implicit Association Test only captures suicide risk among imminently suicidal individuals.
The researcher noted two potential limitations. “This study used a nonclinical college sample, which limits the generalizability of the findings to other samples, including clinical samples of individuals with elevated suicidality. Also, while we observed a relationship between self-compassion and self-reported suicidal behaviors, we did not to observe this relationship with an implicit measure of suicidality, suggesting that there is an important need for a nuanced understanding of the relationship between self-compassion and suicide risk.”
As for future research questions, Zeifman said, “An important question that still needs to be addressed is whether interventions that target self-compassion, such as compassion-focused therapy, would help to effectively reduce suicide risk.”
The study, “On loving thyself: Exploring the association between self-compassion, self-reported suicidal behaviors, and implicit suicidality among college students”, was authored by Richard J. Zeifman, Jennifer Ip, Martin M. Antony and Janice R. Kuo.