Predicting suicide attempts via a computer test

From Medical News Today:

Two powerful new tests developed by psychologists at Harvard University show great promise in predicting patients’ risk of attempting suicide. Both new tests are easily administered within minutes on a computer, giving quick insight into how patients are thinking about suicide, as well as their propensity to attempt suicide in the near future.

In one study, 124 patients in a psychiatric emergency department were administered a modified Stroop test measuring speed in articulating the color of words on a computer screen. Suicidal individuals were found to pay more attention to suicide-related words than to neutral words.

“Suicide Stroop scores predicted six-month follow-up suicide attempts above and beyond well-known risk factors such as a history of suicide attempts, patients’ reported likelihood of attempt, and clinicians’ predictions regarding patients’ likelihood of attempt,” says co-author Christine B. Cha, a doctoral student in psychology at Harvard.

A second study adapted the Implicit Association Test developed by Harvard psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji, using reaction times to semantic stimuli to measure 157 subjects’ automatic mental associations — in this case, the strength of associations between words related to “self” and words related to either “life” or “death/suicide.” Participants were shown pairs of words on a screen, with response speed revealing unconscious associations between the terms. For instance, a rapid response to stimuli associating self with death/suicide suggests a strong unconscious association between the two.

The researchers found that those participants with strong associations between self and death/suicide were six times more likely to attempt suicide within the next six months than those holding stronger associations between self and life.

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