Research conducted by the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology, in collaboration with the University of Amsterdam and Harvard University, has identified the month and time of day when people are most likely to experience suicidal thoughts.
Contrary to popular belief, suicidal thoughts peak in December, not during the winter, and are most intense between 4-5 a.m. The findings have been published in Translational Psychiatry.
Study Methodology and Findings
Over six years, the research team collected responses from over 10,000 people in the UK, US, and Canada using the Project Implicit Health Database (PIH).
Participants completed questionnaires and tasks about their moods, thoughts, and ideations concerning suicide and self-harm.
Dr. Brian O’Shea from the University of Nottingham led the study.
He explained that while winter is often considered a time when people with mental health issues may struggle with worsening mood and depression, the peak risk of suicidal behavior actually occurs in spring.
The study found that mood and suicidal thoughts were worst in December and best in June.
The researchers believe that the gradual improvement in mood and energy following the winter may enable those contemplating suicide to plan and engage in a suicide attempt.
They also suggested that a perceived relative comparison between one’s own mood and the perceived improvement in others’ moods could play a role.
Understanding the Temporal Dynamics of Suicidal Thoughts
The study examined both explicit and implicit cognition related to self-harm. Explicit cognition was examined via direct questions about mood, suicide, and self-harm using a standard 1-5 scale.
Implicit cognition was explored through a reaction time task where participants were required to sort words relating to self, death, and life in real-time.
Participants were divided into three groups: past suicide attempters; those with suicide ideation and/or non-suicidal self-injury; and those with no previous self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or behaviors.
The researchers observed a general increase in negative self-harm cognitions across the six years and a seasonal effect on mood and desire to die, particularly among those who had previously attempted suicide.
The findings revealed a latency between the peak of explicit and implicit suicide cognition in winter and the peak in suicide attempts and deaths in spring.
Explicit suicide cognition, which peaked in December, was followed by implicit self-harm associations peaking in February, both preceding the peak of suicide behavior in spring/early summer.
Similarly, within a 24-hour period, explicit suicidal cognition and mood peaked at 4-5 a.m., with implicit cognition following this peak.
Implications for Suicide Prevention
The study is the first to examine temporal trends around mood and self-harm thoughts on such a large scale, providing valuable insights into when interventions might be most beneficial.
The team’s findings highlight the importance of monitoring individuals at risk of suicide closely during the identified peak times to provide support and potentially life-saving interventions.
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The study was published in Translational Psychiatry.
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