Implicitly Better Tools

Man looks downward in a sad, contemplative manner.

“If you’re not talking about it, you’re not dealing with it,” says UT Knoxville Psychology Professor Michael Olson.

A veteran dies by suicide almost every hour, every day in the United States.

Overall, in the U.S., someone dies by suicide every 12 minutes.

Michael Olson
Michael Olson

In Tennessee, according to a 2019 report from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, the suicide rate is 29 percent higher than the national average. The state saw a 13 percent increase in suicides from 2015 to 2019, from 1,065 to 1,220 deaths. Of those deaths, 17 percent were affiliated with the U.S. Armed Forces. Individuals living in rural areas die by suicide 1.5 times more than those in cities. In Tennessee, 61 percent of all suicides are by firearms.

For decades, deaths by suicide elicited silence. A myth existed that asking people if they were considering suicide would make more suicides happen.

Not true, according to Olson.

“If you’re worried about them, if they seem to be showing signs of it, they’re already thinking about it,” Olson says. “But, when you do start talking about it, now there are opportunities for intervention and for seeking help. That’s better than letting things be. That’s how people get worse is that they don’t address the issue.”

More men commit suicide, Olson says, because women will talk about their mental health struggles; men have been taught to be tough and not to share their feelings.

“People don’t like to feel weak. They don’t like to feel vulnerable. They don’t like people to think of them as a liability.”

So, often, they don’t share their mental health issues. Especially men. Especially military veterans.

That’s where Olson’s work with the Military Suicide Research Consortium comes in. Most suicide research has been based on clinical interviews or surveys where people can choose what they will share.

Olson’s research measures implicit reactions—gut feelings. Those feelings come from the mind’s tracking of the environment and unconscious thought, which can sometimes be accurately reading reality. While his past research looked at relationships and predictors of divorce, his latest research has turned to suicide. It examines how people feel about themselves, others and the future—all predictors of whether someone is considering suicide.

“The vast majority of suicide decedents never tell people that they’re suicidal,” he says.

Stigma and social conditioning keep men quiet about their struggles or they lie to people questioning them, Olson says.

“That’s where implicit measures get in because they get around that social desirability responding,” he says. “We have tools to get inside your head and find out, whether you want to tell me or not.”

His research currently focuses on whether hopelessness operates at a gut feeling level.

“We’re getting at these gut feelings about these things that are relevant to suicide,” he says. “We hope that it will allow us to get a better sense of who’s at risk, especially among folks who are less likely to disclose.”

Initial research led to a 2022 scientific paper published in Psychological Review, and now the theory that implicit screening could help save lives is undergoing further research.

“We’re testing some of these ideas out to whether or not we can get better tools to predict suicide and so know who’s at risk and then who needs intervention,” he says. “Then we can better allocate intervention endeavors.”

For Help:

Suicide and Crisis Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Tennessee Statewide Crisis Line

Crisis Text Line

Warning Signs

Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network

  • Talking about suicide, death and/or no reason to live
  • Preoccupation with death and dying
  • Withdrawal from friends and/or social activities
  • Experience of a recent, severe loss (especially a relationship) or the threat of a significant loss
  • Experience or fear of a situation of humiliation or failure
  • Drastic changes in behavior
  • Loss of interest in hobbies, work, school, etc.
  • Preparation for death by making out a will (unexpectedly) and final arrangements
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Previous history of suicide attempts, as well as violence or hostility
  • Unnecessary risks; reckless or impulsive behavior
  • Loss of interest in personal appearance
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • General hopelessness
  • Unwillingness to connect with potential helpers

What to do

Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network

  • Be aware. Learn the warning signs.
  • Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • Ask if he or she is thinking about suicide.
  • Be direct. Talk openly and freely about suicide.
  • Be willing to listen. Allow for expressions of feelings and accept those feelings.
  • Be nonjudgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture the value of life.
  • Don’t dare him/her to do it.
  • Don’t give advice by making decisions for someone else to tell them to behave differently.
  • Don’t ask why. This encourages defensiveness.
  • Offer empathy, not sympathy.
  • Don’t act shocked. This creates distance.
  • Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • Offer hope that alternatives are available, and do not offer glib reassurance; it only proves you don’t understand.
  • Take action. Remove weapons or pills or other means. Get help from individuals or agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.