There are numerous studies looking at risk factors related to suicidality. In mental health-related training and educational textbooks, lists are presented on the contributing risks for, and protective factors against, suicide. In this article, I’d like to bring attention to one of those items in particular and share a brief synopsis of a scientific experiment.
About 70 years ago in the mid 1950’s, Dr. Curt Richter conducted a series of experiments on rats. No, this is not related to suicide directly, but read on, you’ll see the connection at the end.
Remember, I’m “making a long story short” here. In the series of experiments, a research team placed wild rats in buckets of water where they had no opportunity to escape. Understandably, the rats gave their swimming best to keep afloat and survive, but after a few minutes the rats looked like they were about to drown due to exhaustion and being unable to continue swimming. The researchers rescued them right before drowning. The rats were held, dried up and helped to recover. The researchers then placed the same rats back into the bucket of water.
Knowing that the rats had just swam to near death by drowning due to exhaustion only a few minutes earlier, the researchers would’ve thought the rats would reach that level of exhaustion and feeling of “I can’t swim anymore, I’m drowning” much sooner than the last time which had only lasted no more than 15 minutes.
But this second time around, these same rats kept on swimming for hours!
Having tried to account for a physiological explanation unsuccessfully, the researchers came away with postulating that the outcome was best explained by the psychological state of the rats rather than their physiological state. Sort of like, “mind over matter.”
What had changed to account for the hours of swimming was the fact that the rats experienced being rescued and cared for the previous time. They had developed an optimistic expectation of a positive outcome, namely, hope–a positive belief in their future that “we just have to keep on swimming to stay afloat until we are rescued again.”
That’s what made the rats not give up and keep on fighting (swimming) for hours. It was hope!
Now you see the answer to the title question of this article “What’s hope got to do with it?” and why having hope versus hopelessness plays a role in suicide prevention.
Putting aside the inhumane nature of how some studies were conducted 70 years ago, it is well understood that the lives of rats are much different from those of human beings.
In a vacuum, one cannot draw a simple line between this experiment and the human experience with its intricate relationships of stressors and complicating factors such as trauma and addiction.
With or without the presence of addiction, frequently there is a loving caretaker who is also fatigued. Hence, the importance of involving professionals, not only for the person who is dealing with depression, suicidality, trauma or addiction, but also for the caretaker of that person.
Having hope, a belief that things will get better and a future-oriented optimism for “better days ahead” are protective factors against suicide, whereas the opposite–hopelessness–is a contributing factor to suicide.
Fleetwood Mac exclaimed “Don’t stop” (thinking about tomorrow) in 1977. Gloria Gaynor added “I will survive” in 1978, and Journey chimed in with “Don’t stop believing” in 1981.
Perhaps famed author F. Dostoevsky said it best a century earlier, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”
Additional suicide prevention resources and support
On September 22, Magellan Healthcare hosted a webinar, “The role of mental health recovery in suicide prevention,” for Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. I participated on the panel, along with Dr. Pratt, Dr. Williams and Stacey Volz, who shared her inspiring recovery story from mental health challenges and multiple suicide attempts.
Watch a recording of the webinar as we share our knowledge and personal and professional experiences in addressing mental health and substance use challenges to prevent suicide: https://www.magellanhealthcare.com/event/the-role-of-mental-health-recovery-in-suicide-prevention/.
Visit Magellanhealthcare.com/Prevent-Suicide for more information and materials to learn more and spread awareness about suicide prevention.