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Chapter 9 - On the Randomness of Suicide

An Evolutionary, Clinical Call to Transcend Suicide Risk Assessment

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 September 2022

Riadh Abed
Mental Health Tribunals, Ministry of Justice, UK
Paul St John-Smith
Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, UK
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Converging theoretical and empirical evidence points to suicide being a fundamentally aleatory event – that risk of suicide is opaque to useful assessment at the level of the individual. This chapter presents an integrated evolutionary and clinical argument that the time has come to transcend efforts to categorise peoples’ risk of taking their own lives. A brighter future awaits mental healthcare if the behaviour’s essential non-predictability is understood and accepted. The pain-brain evolutionary theory of suicide predicts inter alia that all intellectually competent humans carry the potential for suicide, and that suicides will occur largely at random. The randomness arises because, over an evolutionary timescale, selection of adaptive defences will have sought out and exploited all operative correlates of suicide and will thus have exhausted those correlates’ predictive power. Completed suicides are therefore statistical residuals – events intrinsically devoid of informational cues by which the organism could have avoided self-destruction. Empirical evidence supports this theoretical expectation. Suicide resists useful prediction at the level of the individual. Regardless of the means by which the assessment is made, people rated ‘high risk’ seldom take their own lives, even over extended periods. Consequently, if a prevention treatment is sufficiently safe and effective to be worth allotting to the ‘high-risk’ subset of a cohort of patients, it will be just as worthwhile for the rest. Prevention measures will offer the greatest prospects for success where the aleatory nature of suicide is accepted, acknowledging that ‘fault’ for rare, near-random, self-induced death resides not within the individual but as a universal human potentiality. A realistic, evolution-informed, clinical approach is proposed that focuses on risk communication in place of risk assessment. All normally sapient humans carry a vanishingly small daily risk of taking their own lives but are very well adapted to avoiding that outcome. Almost all of us nearly always find other solutions to the stresses of living.

Evolutionary Psychiatry
Current Perspectives on Evolution and Mental Health
, pp. 134 - 152
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2022

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