New research suggests that facing troubling conditions such as abuse or neglect during childhood is associated with the development of “dark” personality traits, which in turn is linked to heightened suicidality. The findings have been published in Personality and Individual Differences.
“It is estimated that every 40 seconds someone, somewhere in the world, dies by suicide and for every completed suicide there are approximately 20 attempts with several factors (e.g, history of self-harm, personality disorders, gender, addiction problems, childhood adversity) being well-established predictors of suicide attempts and completions,” said study author Jacob Dye, a lecturer of psychology at Federation University Australia.
“Adverse experiences during childhood (emotional, physical, and/or sexual abuse, giver neglect, and/or patterns of harmful interactions between a child and caregiver occurring before 18 years of age) are strongly linked with a two-to-threefold increase in the risk of suicide and the development of ‘dark’ personality traits. The ‘Dark Triad’ of personality includes the traits of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism and is a concept that people associate with individuals who cause harm (physical, emotional, or societal) to others.”
(If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 (or 800-273-8255) or visit the NSPL site.)
“However, aspects of these traits can also be harmful to the individuals who possess them — the vulnerable dark triad (psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder),” Dye explained. “These traits share features such as difficulty regulating emotion, high neuroticism, introversion, disinhibition, antagonistic interpersonal styles, reckless behavior, impulsivity, substance abuse, aggression, and antisocial behavior. We were interested to see if childhood adversity relates to the risk of suicide through the development of these traits.”
The researchers recruited 1,064 participants for their study. Most of the participants were from North America, Australia, or the United Kingdom. Via an online survey, the participants completed assessments of suicide risk, childhood adversity, subclinical psychopathy, vulnerable narcissism, and borderline personality disorder. They also responded to basic demographic questions.
Approximately 55.7% of participants reported that they had not attempted suicide, while 40.2% reported they had attempted suicide at least once. The researchers found evidence that two of the vulnerable dark triad traits mediated the relationship between childhood adversity and suicide risk. Adverse experiences during childhood were associated with an increased risk of both vulnerable narcissism and borderline personality traits, which in turn were associated with an increased risk of suicide.
“Experiencing adversity during childhood is an important and preventable predictor of negative adult outcomes,” Dye told PsyPost. “Our study shows that childhood adversity predicts an increased risk of suicide in adulthood, as well as an increased risk of developing personality traits that are associated with negative outcomes for both the individual and those around them.
“Importantly, our research shows that childhood adversity contributes to an increased risk of suicide through the development of the vulnerable aspects of these personality traits. The presence of these personality traits subsequently puts individuals at a higher risk of suicide.”
The researchers also found that age was negatively associated with all vulnerable dark triad traits and risk of suicide.
“The severity of these aspects of personality and the risk of suicide decrease with age,” Dye explained. “This could be the result of a variety of factors, such as a survivorship bias (the data only represent those who have survived), effective interventions in adulthood, and/or a developmental process that decreases the severity of these traits over time. Research is ongoing in this area.”
The study, like all research, includes some limitations. Dye pointed out a particular area that future research should address.
“Does the impact of experiencing childhood adversity vary depending on when the adversity is experienced?” he explained. “Experiencing adversity at different stages of brain development likely results in different consequences for the individual. I believe that this is one of the most important questions in terms of facilitating individual and social interventions to reduce the impact of childhood adversity.”
Awareness of the relationship between childhood adversity, personality, and suicide risk could help therapists better understand and treat individuals with suicidal tendencies, the researchers said, and should be considered in treatment planning.
“In many countries, the services that provide interventions for children in adverse environments are woefully underfunded and underresourced,” Dye said. “Given that the cumulative data concerning the outcomes of childhood adversity overwhelmingly show that it contributes to a wide variety of negative outcomes in adulthood, this is an area where government investment could have a massive impact. Relatively small investments could result in desperately needed immediate improvements for the conditions of children experiencing adversity as well as impressive social, psychological, and physical improvements for the future adult population.”
The study, “Vulnerable dark traits mediate the association between childhood adversity and suicidal ideation“, was authored by Kate Wilson, George Van Doorn, and Jacob Dye.