Suicide and Self-Injury-Related Implicit Cognition: A Large-Scale Examination and Replication

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Suicide and self-injury are difficult to predict because at-risk individuals are often unable or unwilling to report their intentions. Therefore, tools to reliably assess risk without reliance on self-report are critically needed. Prior research suggests that people who engage in suicidal and nonsuicidal self-injury (NSSI) often implicitly (i.e., outside conscious control) associate themselves with self-harm and death, indicating that self-harm-related implicit cognition may serve as a useful behavioral marker for suicide risk. However, earlier studies left several critical questions about the robustness, sensitivity, and specificity of self-harm-related implicit associations unaddressed. We recruited a large sample of participants (N = 7,015) via a public web-based platform called Project Implicit Mental Health (PIMH) to test several hypotheses about self-harm-related implicit associations using the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Participants were randomly assigned to complete 1 of 3 self-harm IATs (Self + Cutting using picture stimuli, Self + Suicide using word stimuli, Self + Death using word stimuli). Results replicated prior studies demonstrating that self-harm-related implicit associations were stronger among individuals with (vs. without) a history of suicide attempt and NSSI. Results also suggested that self-harm-related implicit associations are robust (based on internal replication), are sensitive to recency and severity of self-harm history (e.g., stronger associations for more recent and more lethal prior suicide attempts), and correlate with specific types of self-harm behaviors. These findings clarify the nature of self-harm-related implicit cognition and highlight the IAT’s potential to track current risk for specific types of self-harm in ways that more fixed risk factors cannot.

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