January Lab of the Month: A new model of suicide with the Personality, Emotion, and Behaviour Lab

Drawn by a strong desire to understand and help people, Dr. E. David Klonsky is a clinical psychologist and an associate professor in the department of psychology. As director of the Personality, Emotion and Behaviour Lab (PEBL), his research focuses on understanding and preventing suicide and self-harm.

Ahead of UBC’s Suicide Awareness Day on January 25, we sit down with Dr. Klonsky to learn about his research on the psychology of suicidal behaviour, to gain insights into suicide, and to see how we can show support and help prevent suicide.

What’s the lab’s main research focus?
We study suicide and self-injury, as well as big picture issues regarding the nature of emotion and personality.

What has led you to research suicide?

While many variables in psychology are vague and hard to identify (e.g., what exactly is personality?), suicide attempts are real behaviours that are critical to understand and prevent. I am drawn to this topic both by intellectual curiosity (what motivates suicide, what leads some who feel suicidal to attempt suicide but not others), and by a strong desire to ensure that people in need can be understood and helped.

What kinds of questions do you try to answer?

Some key questions that drive our research include:

  1. What are the motivations for suicide?
  2. What is different about people who attempt suicide or die by suicide compared to people who feel suicidal but never attempt?
  3. Can we develop a simple yet accurate theory for understanding suicide?
  4. How can we improve our measurement and understanding of emotion and emotional experience?

Can you tell us more about the ‘Three-Step Theory’ of suicide that you developed?

In 2014, I proposed that an ‘ideation-to-action’ framework should guide suicide research, theory, and prevention. From this perspective, a) the development of suicide thoughts and b) the progression from thoughts to suicide attempts are distinct processes with distinct explanations. This framework is critical because most people with suicidal thoughts do not attempt. Moreover, research reveals that oft-cited suicide risk factors – including mental disorders, depression, hopelessness, and even impulsivity – strongly predict ideation but poorly distinguish attempters from ideators. In short, we do not understand when or why suicidal thoughts progresses to action. This knowledge gap severely limits how we understand and help people at risk for suicide.

The Three-Step Theory (3ST) is a new model of suicide that is evidence-based, easy to understand, and positioned within the ideation-to-action framework. The 3ST holds that: 1) suicidal thoughts result from the combination of emotional pain and hopelessness; 2) these thoughts becomes strong when pain exceeds connectedness; and 3) progression from thoughts to action requires one to overcome the fear of death, pain, and injury that serves as a barrier to making a suicide attempt. Clinically, the 3ST suggests 4 suicide prevention targets: a) reduce pain, b) increase hope, c) improve connection, d) reduce capacity to make an attempt. The theory is described in more detail here: http://www2.psych.ubc.ca/~klonsky/publications/3ST.pdf

Is there any new research that you are excited about?

We are particularly excited about new research by us and others showing that fear of things like pain, injury, and death are key barriers to suicide attempts among individuals who feel suicidal.  This work has implications for understanding and blocking the transition from suicidal thoughts to behaviour.

 What are other members of the lab working on?

Sarah Victor, now on clinical internship, has focused her work on understanding emotional experience in those who self-injure. Boaz Saffer is examining the role of executive functioning in the transition from suicidal thoughts to attempts. Tianyou (Serene) Qiu is examining decision-making styles that facilitate progression from suicide ideation to attempts. Anita Hibbert is examining the measurement of emotion and the effects of emotion/mood on self-descriptions of personality.

Can you describe the personality of the lab?

I try to keep the lab’s energy excited, optimistic, and inspired, even though the research enterprise can include rejection and dead-ends as well.

Lastly, how can we help someone who is suicidal?

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal and in crisis, you can call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) to speak with a crisis line worker and get help.

January 25, 2017 is Suicide Awareness Day at UBC.

There are a number of ways you can show your support and raise awareness to help prevent suicide. More.

Reach out early and help prevent suicide at UBCTest your awareness with the suicide myths & facts quizParticipate in QPR suicide prevention trainingWear orange on Suicide Awareness Day, January 25

Discover UBC initiatives and research that aim to prevent suicide.