Is physical pain causally related to suicidal behavior: An experimental test
Park, E.C., Harris, L.M., Sigel, A.N., Huang, X., Chen, S., & Ribeiro, D.
Existing evidence suggests a link between physical pain and suicide, but the nature of this relationship remains unknown. To address this critical gap in knowledge, the present study leveraged a validated virtual reality (VR) suicide paradigm to experimentally examine the causal effects of physical pain on subsequent virtual suicidal behaviors. Based on previous findings, we hypothesized that physical pain would causally drive virtual suicidal behavior only if suicide was conceptualized as having desirable anticipated consequences (e.g., a means of escaping from current pain; an opportunity to avoid future pain). We tested this by randomizing 326 participants across four different conditions: a physical pain condition, an anticipated escape condition, an anticipated avoidance condition, and a control condition. As predicted, physical pain alone did not result in statistically significant increases in VR suicide rates; however, the anticipation that virtual suicidal behavior would result in the avoidance of future physical pain had a large causal effect on VR suicide rates (B = 1.61, p < .001, IRR = 5.01). We failed to find evidence that anticipating that VR suicide would provide an escape from currently experienced physical pain increases the likelihood of VR suicide. Our findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the anticipated consequences of suicide (e.g., avoidance of future physical pain) may serve as primary causes of suicidal behavior.