When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.Victor Frankl
People face challenging, sometimes life-changing, experiences throughout their life. These experiences can include losing a loved one, problems at work, a severe illness, natural disasters, or other situations that bring negative emotions. Such stressful life experiences have been shown to increase an individual’s risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviours . Therefore, theories of suicide also consider adverse life events as a context in which the risk for suicidal thoughts increases [2,3]. For example, one’s negative appraisal system might be activated due to the adverse life event – one can feel defeated and cannot see an escape from the unbearable situation. This may then lead to thinking about suicide – as the only potential escape.
But what if people change their perspective on the adverse event and identify some positive outcomes from the adversity? Would that reduce the suicide risk?
Tedeschi and Calhoun coined the term ‘post-traumatic growth’ to capture this growth experience and define it as positive psychological changes resulting from struggling with challenging life events . These changes can be related to appreciating life more, realising a stronger self, identifying new priorities in life, improved relationships with others and greater engagement in spirituality and religiousness. However, this is not an easy process as it requires particular cognitive and social efforts such as, reflecting on the event, seeking social support, restructuring thought patterns, finding meaning and accepting the ‘changed’ world – all of which determine the degree to which post-traumatic growth develops .
Evidence shows that finding benefits from adversity and identifying post-traumatic growth is beneficial and associated with better mental health. People who report positive changes in their identity, outlook on the world and their relationships with others following adversity are less likely to report depressive symptoms – indicating a protective role of post-traumatic growth . If perceptions of growth function as a coping strategy, it is also essential to understand whether it also functions as a buffer which reduces an individual’s risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts.
Increasingly, suicide research has focused on understanding protective factors (e.g., resilience) that may reduce the saliency of negative feelings and thoughts that lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviours . In my work, I explore whether post-traumatic growth can be one of these protective factors, given its coping potential. I am particularly interested in examining the relationship between post-traumatic growth and suicidal thoughts, aiming to understand if reports of post-traumatic growth buffer against the development of suicidal thoughts.
To explore this, I collected data from 521 participants from a community sample. They were asked questions regarding suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic growth experience based on past adverse experiences. More than half of the participants were female, and the average age was 30 years old. A total of 309 participants (59.3%) reported experiencing suicidal thoughts during the past year. In addition, the majority of participants reported highly distressing experiences, such as sexual and physical abuse, the sudden death of a loved one, car accidents or suicide attempts. The participants answered post-traumatic growth questions in relation to these negative experiences. For example, they were asked whether they have had a greater appreciation for the value of their own life due to that experience or whether they have felt stronger than before. Results highlighted that individuals who perceive benefits from their adverse experiences are less likely to think about suicide, indicating the potential protective role of post-traumatic growth.
In other words, finding new meaning from stressful experiences, changing perspectives on those adverse events seem to play a buffering role against the development of suicidal thoughts. This finding is consistent with research demonstrating that perceiving benefits from adversity has beneficial consequences for individuals’ health . Given the negative relationship between post-traumatic growth and suicidal thoughts, and the importance of identifying resiliency and coping processes for suicide intervention work, it is essential to continue examining the role of post-traumatic growth and its function to reduce the saliency of suicidal thoughts. So that we can understand how/if post-traumatic growth help individuals by reducing the risk for suicidal thoughts.
- Howarth, E. J., O’Connor, D. B., Panagioti, M., Hodkinson, A., Wilding, S., & Johnson, J. (2020). Are stressful life events prospectively associated with increased suicidal ideation and behaviour? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of affective disorders, 266, 731-742. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.01.171
- Johnson, J., Gooding, P. A., Wood, A. M., & Tarrier, N. (2010). Resilience as positive coping appraisals: Testing the schematic appraisals model of suicide (SAMS). Behaviour research and therapy, 48(3), 179-186. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.brat.2009.10.007
- O’Connor, R. C., & Kirtley, O. J. (2018). The integrated motivational–volitional model of suicidal behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1754), 20170268. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0268
- Tedeschi, R. G., & Calhoun, L. G. (1996). The Posttraumatic Growth Inventory Measuring the positive legacy of trauma. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(3), 455-471. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02103658
- Calhoun, L.G., Cann, A., & Tedeschi, R.G. (2010). The post-traumatic growth model: Socio-cultural considerations. In T. Weiss & R. Berger, (Eds.),Post-traumatic growth and culturally competent practice: Lessons learned from around the globe. (pp. 1-14). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley
- Helgeson, V. S., Reynolds, K. A., & Tomich, P. L. (2006). A meta-analytic review of benefit finding and growth. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 74(5), 797. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.74.5.797
- Tennen, H., & Affleck, G. (2002). Benefit-finding and benefit reminding. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 584–597). New York: Oxford University Press