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Theories of Suicidal Behavior: Perspectives on What Causes Suicide

Updated on June 24, 2015

People who exhibit suicidal behavior nearly always have a serious psychiatric disorder.

Statistics show that nine out of ten people who commit or attempt suicide have at least one major psychiatric illness and in half of these cases two or more such illnesses are present. Most common of these psychiatric conditions are mood disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, and behavior disorders. this is an attempt to explain the role of mental illness in youth suicide using the theoretical perspectives of abnormal behavior and the V Axes Diagnosis system.

With suicide being one of the leading causes of death for young people, it is important to look at it in relation to the major theories in abnormal behavior. Theories guide research on the causes of behavioral mal-adaptions and physical illnesses. The major theories include: The biological perspective, the psychodynamic perspective, the behavioral perspective, the cognitive perspective, the humanistic-existential perspective, and the community-cultural perspective.

The biological perspective emphasizes the role of bodily processes by suggesting that bodily disturbances can be caused by a genetic defect, an injury or infection, or a temporary physiological malfunction caused by a current condition.

Another point of view would be that maladaptive behavior is jointly caused by the body, the psychological functioning, and the social environment. Genetic factors, which influence the biological perspective, include the nervous system being affected not only by genes but environment as well. One major factor in genetic abnormalities is irregularities in the structure or number of chromosomes, which are present in all body cells.

Abnormalities in the brain are often caused by chromosomal abnormalities. An implication of the biological perspective is that many types of abnormal behavior is largely due to factors that are beyond people’s control such as the type of brain and body someone is born with and the environment in which they live.

Most teenage suicide is driven by impulsive or aggressive behavior, stress, or anxiety, which have been shown to be related to abnormalities in serotonergic mechanisms.

The psychodynamic perspective emphasizes the role of anxiety and inner conflict, meaning that thoughts and emotions are important causes of behavior and environment and personal experiences play roles in how the brain functions. Observable behavior is a function of intrapsychic processes. Many psychodynamic theorists agree that personality is shaped by a combination of inner and outer events emphasizing on the inner ones. Sigmund Freud, the originator of the psychodynamic perspective, believed that in order to understand behavior it is necessary to analyze the thoughts preceding and associated with it, and that to understand these thoughts, a persons deepest emotions and feelings must be explored.

Psychodynamic theories are the systems out of which all types of psychotherapy are developed. Important elements of psychodynamic therapy are; the idea that significant past experiences play roles in present functioning and the belief that there is much that influences us that we are not consciously away of.


The behavioral perspective examines how environment influences behavior in that it focuses on behavior as a response to stimuli in the environment. Psychologists who use the behavioral perspective focus on learning and view behavior as a product of stimulus-response relationships rather than delving into the past to try to get people to figure out why they are the way they are.

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two of the most important pillars in the behavioral perspective. Classical conditioning is the response that occurs automatically to one stimulus and then is transferred to a new stimulus by pairing the two stimuli. Operant conditioning uses reinforcements in order to achieve a response. Positive reinforcements and rewards increase the chance of the behavior happening again whereas negative reinforcement or punishments provide a negative consequence for the behavior thus decreasing the probability of repetition.

The cognitive perspective looks to defective thinking and problem solving as causes of abnormal behavior as it focuses on the way people acquire and interpret information and use it in problem solving. It puts great emphasis on mental processes that we are aware of or can easily be made aware of, as opposed to hidden motivations, feelings and conflicts.

Cognitive perspective pays attention to people’s thoughts and problem solving strategies rather than their personal histories. People are continually collecting; storing, modifying, interpreting and understanding both internally generated information and environmental stimuli. People develop schemata, which contain information about different parts of a person’s life and assist in information processing and strategy development.

Schemata, through their influence on cognitive processes, enable people to quickly identify stimuli, cluster them into manageable units, fill in missing information and select a strategy for obtaining further information, solving a problem or reaching a goal. Supporters of the cognitive perspective believe that people form representations of themselves and the world around them and that these representations are important influences over behavior and feelings and how people live their lives.

The humanistic-existential perspective emphasizes out uniqueness as individuals and freedom to make our own decisions in that in every person there is an active striving toward self actualization, or a desire to be all that you can be. Humanists are more optimistic than existentialists when it comes to human condition and they see undesirable environmental influences as disruptions of self-actualization where existentialists emphasize the responsibilities of the individual to deal realistically with environmental givens.

They both agree however, that scientific psychology should not dwell only on observable behavior and neglect a persons inner live, that inner experiences and the search for the meaning of existence are the core of an individual and therefore should be the focus of psychology. A difference is that while humanistic theorists focus on the processes of self-actualization, existential theorists emphasize self-determination, choice and the responsibility of the individual to rise above environmental forces. The humanistic-existential perspective is obviously more philosophical that scientific yet it does address crucial aspects of human existence.

Finally, the community-cultural perspective is concerned with the roles of social relationships and the impact of socioeconomic conditions and maldaptive behavior suggesting that maldaptive behavior, rather than being a personal health problem or character defect, is a result of an inability to effectively cope with stress. Instead of viewing the behavior as a disease or a problem existing within the individual it is seen partly as a failure of the individuals social system which would include a persons spouse, parents, siblings, relatives, friends, teachers, employers, religious advisors, community organizations, government agencies and others. Social causation is a theory that argues that the poor schools, crime, inadequate housing and prejudice often found in deteriorating low-income neighborhoods may increase the stress experiences by already venerable people, whereas the social selection theory suggests that lower socioeconomic groups show greater incidence of maldaptive behavior because people who do not function well tend to experience downward social mobility.

Supporters of the community-cultural perspective are more likely to support the social causation theory because while the social selection theory may be a factor it doesn’t rule out the stress producing situation related to cultural disparities or encountered by low-income people that may aggravate existing disorders. Because all individuals belong to social groups, social roles and labeling must be taken into account.

Social roles are functions that a person plays as a member of a social group and some theorists believe that we always attempt to project an image and therefore we have no true self. The composite position states that personality is overlaid with situational role-playing, which serves to label an individual in a certain way. Labels such as “good student” or “loyal friend” can be positive however, labels like “mentally ill” or “crazy” can be negative and affect an individual in a negative way causing someone to feel stigmatized and reluctant to seek help because of how they will be labeled.

Sarason, B. R., & Sarason, I. G. (2005). Abnormal psychology: The problem of
maladaptive behavior (11th ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson
Education, Inc.

Brent, D. A. (2001, July). Is impulsive aggression the critical ingredient? Retrieved January 22, 2009, from

Ghanshyam N Pandey, Yogesh Dwivedi, Hooriyah S Rizavi, Xinguo Ren, et al. (2002). Higher expression of serotonin 5-HT(2A) receptors in the postmortem brains of teenage suicide victims. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 159(3), 419-29. Retrieved January 22, 2009, from Research Library database. (Document ID: 110380056).


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