Are there aspects of a person’s personality that either protect from or predispose to the risk of suicide? We know that social isolation and mental health issues like PTSD, depression, substance abuse disorders all increase the risk of suicide. Something that researchers only recently looked at was the relationship of personality types and suicide risk. What they discovered was that, all other factors aside, people who view life as threatening, dangerous, or excessively difficult are more likely than others to attempt to end their own lives.
Connecting Personality Type to Suicide Risk
Until a couple of years ago no one had ever looked at suicide risk as it relates to personality type. The case was sometimes made that because introversion, being neurotic, and not being very conscientious relate to depression and excessive alcohol consumption and these are risk factors for suicide, that there could be a connection between personality types and suicide risk. Researchers studied this issue by defining personality types and then suicide risk within these groups.
Five Personality Types and How They Relate to Suicide Risk
The five personality types considered by the researchers in this study were as follows:
- Openness to Experience
The researchers considered education level, marital status, alcohol intake, and smoking and considered these factors when assessing the results. The study looked at an 8.1 year time frame.
What the study showed was that increases in neuroticism were associated with an increased risk of suicide and increases in agreeableness were related to a reduced risk of suicide. Conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness were not related to suicide risk.
Personality and Other Factors In Relation to Suicide
The researchers reported that personality types had little relationship to factors like physical health or socioeconomic status. Thus, they appear to be independent factors that have the potential to increase risk in the case of a neurotic personality or decrease risk in the case of an agreeable personality.
The researchers speculate that agreeable and non-neurotic people have more and better social relationships and that non-agreeable and neurotic people have fewer. This would relate to social isolation which is a known suicide risk factor. Their opinion is that the cooperation and empathy that go with an agreeable personality contribute to a lower suicide risk and that that suspiciousness, hostility, and impulsivity that tend to go with a neurotic personality are what drive the increased risk of suicide in this group.
What Is a Neurotic Personality?
Neuroticism is the personality trait in which people tend to view the world as unsafe, threatening, and distressing. This trait can be mild with minimal symptoms or can be extreme with virtual emotional chaos. With extreme neuroticism comes emotional lability as well. In other words the person is calm and content one moment and tense, anxious, or withdrawn the next. Folks who are not neurotic tend to be content, stable, and confident. People who are in the low end of this spectrum tend not to have emotional or psychological difficulties. People at the high end of this spectrum are prone to feeling anxiety, guilt, anger and depression. We have written about how the section of the brain called the amygdala functions as a processor for anxiety and fear and is prominent in PTSD and severe depression. It is of note that researchers have found that neurotic individuals have specific patterns of activity within the amygdala which implies that they are constantly processing (and rehearsing) their anxiety, guilt, fear, hostility, and the rest.
Agreeableness as a Protective Trait Against Suicide
Agreeable people are usually popular and have many friends. They are generally viewed as honest, empathetic, modest, cooperative, altruistic and trustworthy. Compared to neurotic people these folks do not view life as a constant threat or something to be endured. On the brain level these folks do not have the constant buzz going in and out of their amygdala due to processing of things viewed as threats.
Can You Change Your Personality Type?
Since personality type tends to influence how happy we are as well as how successful we are in life it would be great to be able to push a button and pick the type that you want. Unfortunately, unless a concerted effort is made, personality types tend to remain roughly the same throughout life. That does not mean they cannot be changed but it requires that the person decide to change, that they seek help, and that they make a concerted and prolonged effort to accomplish their goal.