The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status (2023)

The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status (1)Thomas Joiner grew up in Georgia, went to college at Princeton, and received his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He is Distinguished Research Professor and The Bright-Burton Professor in the Department of Psychology at Florida State University. Dr. Joiner’s work is on the psychology, neurobiology, and treatment of suicidal behavior and related conditions. Author of over 385 peer-reviewed publications, Dr. Joiner was recently awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Shneidman Award for excellence in suicide research from the American Association of Suicidology, and the Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions from the American Psychological Association, as well as research grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and various foundations. Dr. Joiner is editor of the American Psychological Association’s Clinician’s Research Digest, editor of the Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, and he has authored or edited fifteen books, including Why People Die By Suicide, published in 2005 by Harvard University Press. He runs a part-time clinical and consulting practice specializing in suicidal behavior, including legal consultation on suits involving death by suicide. He lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with his wife and two sons.

The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior (Joiner, 2005) proposes that an individual will not die by suicide unless s/he has both the desire to die by suicide and the ability to do so. What is the desire for suicide, and what are its constituent parts? What is the ability to die by suicide and in whom and how does it develop?

In answer to the first question of who desires suicide, the theory asserts that when people hold two specific psychological states in their minds simultaneously, and when they do so for long enough, they develop the desire for death. The two psychological states are perceived burdensomeness and a sense of low belongingness or social alienation. In answer to the second question regarding capability for suicide, self-preservation is a powerful enough instinct that few can overcome it by force of will. The few who can have developed a fearlessness of pain, injury, and death, which, according to the theory, they acquire through a process of repeatedly experiencing painful and otherwise provocative events. These experiences often include previous self-injury, but can also include other experiences, such as repeated accidental injuries; numerous physical fights; and occupations like physician and front-line soldier in which exposure to pain and injury, either directly or vicariously, is common.

What is the current empirical base bearing on this conceptualization? Some of it is indirect, though a growing body of direct empirical findings is accruing. In the following sections, evidence and concepts regarding each of the theory’s three main components are reviewed.

Perceived Burdensomeness

Perceived burdensomeness is the view that one’s existence burdens family, friends, and/or society. This view produces the idea that “my death will be worth more than my life to family, friends, society, etc.” – a view, it is important to emphasize, that represents a potentially fatal misperception. Past research, though not designed to test the interpersonal-psychological theory, nonetheless has documented an association between higher levels of perceived burdensomeness and suicidal ideation. DeCatanzaro (1995), for instance, found that perceived burdensomeness toward family was correlated with suicidal ideation among community participants and high-suicide-risk groups. Direct tests of the theory have been supportive as well. In two studies of suicide notes, Joiner et al. (2002) showed that raters detected more expressions of burdensomeness in: 1) the notes of people who had died by suicide compared to the notes of those who intended to die but survived; and 2) the notes of those who died by violent means compared to the notes of those who died by less violent means. In a study of psychotherapy outpatients, Van Orden, Lynam, Hollar, and Joiner (2006) showed that a measure of perceived burdensomeness was a robust predictor of suicide attempt status and of current suicidal ideation, even controlling for powerful suicide-related covariates like hopelessness.

Low Belonging/Social Alienation

(Video) Nicole M. Cain, Ph.D., “The Impact of Interpersonal Processes on Suicidal Behavior in BPD”

A low sense of belongingness is the experience that one is alienated from others, not an integral part of a family, circle of friends, or other valued group. As with the research base on perceived burdensomeness, there is abundant evidence that this factor is implicated in suicidal behavior. However, relatively little of this evidence derives from direct tests of the interpersonal-psychological theory. Indeed, a persuasive case can be made that, of all the risk factors for suicidal behavior, ranging from the molecular to the cultural levels, the strongest and most uniform support has emerged for indices related to social isolation (e.g., Boardman, Grimbaldeston, Handley, Jones, & Willmott, 1999). The connection between belonging (or its absence) and suicidality has been established for a number of diverse populations, including young adolescents, college students, elderly individuals, and psychiatric inpatients. Furthermore, suicide rates go down during times of celebration (when people pull together to celebrate; Joiner, Hollar, & Van Orden, 2006) and during times of hardship or tragedy (when people pull together to commiserate). For instance, there was a low rate of death by suicide in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, as there was the week after President Kennedy’s assassination (Biller, 1977).

With regard to studies framed as direct tests of this aspect of the interpersonal-psychological theory, Conner, Britton, Sworts, and Joiner (2007) evaluated 131 methadone maintenance patients, and demonstrated that low feelings of belongingness predicted lifetime history of suicide attempts. As expected, in a fairly stringent test of specificity, this association was specific to suicidal behavior; belongingness was unrelated to unintentional overdoses. This specific association held even after a rigorous accounting for demographic characteristics, correlates of suicidal behavior, and other interpersonal variables.

In another study, Van Orden, Witt, Bender, and Joiner (2008) showed that, as predicted, college students’ suicidal ideation peaked in the summer semester (there is a late spring-early summer peak in suicidality, contrary to what most assume), and furthermore, found that low belonging in the summer (when the campus is less active) accounted, in part, for the association between semester and suicidality.

Acquired Ability to Enact Lethal Self-Injury

While feelings of burdensomeness and low belongingness may instill a desire for suicide, they are not sufficient to ensure that desire will lead to a suicide attempt. Indeed, in order for this to occur, the theory suggests a third element must be present: the acquired ability for lethal self-injury. This aspect of the theory suggests that suicide entails a fight with self-preservation motives. According to the theory, having fought this battle repeatedly and in different domains instills the capacity to stare down the self-preservation instinct—should an individual develop the desire to.

The basis for this proposition rests primarily on the principles of opponent-process theory, which suggests that with repeated exposure to an affective stimulus, the reaction to that stimulus shifts over time such that the stimulus loses its ability to elicit the original response and, instead, the opposite response is strengthened (Solomon, 1980). In light of this, it is hypothesized that the capability for suicide is acquired largely through repeated exposure to painful or fearsome experiences. This results in habituation and, in turn, a higher tolerance for pain and a sense of fearlessness in the face of death. Acquired capability is viewed as a continuous construct, accumulating over time with repeated exposure to salient experiences and influenced by the nature of those experiences such that more painful and provocative experiences will confer greater capacity for suicide.

A clear implication of this is that past suicidal behavior will habituate individuals to the pain and fear of self-injury, making future suicidality, on average, more likely. Indeed, a history of suicide attempts has been found to be a strong predictor of future suicidal behavior including death by suicide (Joiner et al., 2005; Brown, Beck, Steer, & Grisham, 2000). Moreover, Joiner and colleagues (2005) have found that individuals with past suicide attempts experienced more serious forms of future suicidality, as compared to others who did not have a history of suicidality and, crucially, this association was not accounted for by other variables (e.g., mood disorder status, personality disorder status, family history variables). Relatedly, it has also been found that individuals with a history of suicide attempts evidence higher pain tolerance in general (Orbach, Mikulincer, King, Cohen, & Stein 1997). Also, in a direct test of acquired capability for suicide, Van Orden, Witte, Gordon, Bender, and Joiner (2008) used a scale designed to tap the construct, and showed that number of past suicide attempts significantly predicted levels of acquired capability in a sample of clinical outpatients. The highest levels of acquired capability were reported by individuals with multiple past attempts, as the theory would predict.

Yet, acquiring the capacity for suicide is not limited to prior suicidal behavior—it can also be acquired through repeated experience with other painful and fear-inducing behaviors (e.g., non-suicidal self-injury, self-starvation, physical abuse, etc.). For instance, in the case of non-suicidal self-injury, prior research has suggested that the likelihood of suicide attempts is greater in individuals who have a longer history of self-injury, use a greater number of methods, and report absence of physical pain during self-injury–all characteristics suggestive of habituation and tolerance (Nock, Joiner, Gordon, Richardson, & Prinstein, 2006).

(Video) Nicole M Cain, Ph.D. - The Impact of Interpersonal Processes on Suicidal Behavior in BPD

Lastly, aside from direct exposure, the theory also posits that even exposure to others’ pain and injury may produce the capacity for suicide. Physicians fit this hypothesis, evidencing high suicide rates despite many protective factors (Hawton, Clements, Sakarovitch, Simkin, & Deeks, 2001).

The Interactive Nature of the Theory

Thus far each component of the theory has been described in isolation, providing evidence for the independent effects of perceived burdensomeness, failed belongingness, and acquired capability on levels of suicidality. We have not yet explored the interactive nature of the theory, which posits a three-way interaction between these components. Particularly, the theory suggests that the joint occurrence of perceived burdensomeness and failed belongingness is sufficient to produce the desire to die, and that this desire translates into lethal or near-lethal behavior only in the presence of the acquired capacity for lethality.

To date, four studies bear on the interactive aspects of the model, two described in Van Orden et al. (2008), and two described in Joiner et al. (in press). In a study of undergraduates, Van Orden et al. (2008) showed that the statistical interaction between (high) burdensomeness and (low) belonging predicted current suicidal ideation; this occurred beyond important covariates, like depressive symptoms. A second study on psychotherapy outpatients also provided evidence for a statistical interaction between scores on an acquired capability measure and an index of perceived burdensomeness, such that acquired capability in the presence of high levels of perceived burdensomeness predicted clinician ratings of suicide risk—again, above and beyond the contribution of other risk factors (i.e., depression scores, gender, and age). In the first of the Joiner et al. studies, in a large, diverse, and representative community sample of young people, burdensomeness and low belonging interacted to predict suicidal ideation. In the second study, acquired capacity, perceived burdensomeness, and low belonging interacted as hypothesized to predict suicide attempt status in a clinical sample of young adults.

The interpersonal-psychological theory is promising, with a growing empirical base to support it. The theory suggests that clinicians be cognizant of their patients’ levels of belongingness, burdensomeness, and acquired capability (especially previous suicide attempts), as this knowledge may aid clinicians in the task of suicide risk assessment and of targeting therapeutics.


Biller, O.A. (1977). Suicide related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 7, 40-44.

Brown, G., Beck, A. T., Steer, R., & Grisham, J. (2000). Risk factors for suicide in psychiatric outpatients: A 20-year prospective study. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 371–377.

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Boardman, A. P., Grimbaldeston, A. H., Handley, C., Jones, P. W., & Willmott, S. (1999). The North Staffordshire suicide study: a case-control study of suicide in one health district. Psychological Medicine, 29, 27-33.

Conner, K., Britton, P., Sworts, L., & Joiner, T. (2007). Suicide attempts among individuals with opiate dependence: The critical role of felt belonging. Addictive Behaviors, 32, 1395-1404.

DeCatanzaro, D. (1995). Reproductive status, family interactions, and suicidal ideation: Surveys of the general public and high-risk groups. Ethology & Sociobiology, 16, 385-394.

Hawton, K., Clements, A., Sakarovitch, C., Simkin, S., & Deeks, J.J. (2001). Suicide in doctors: A study of risk according to gender, seniority, and specialty in medical practitioners in England and Wales, 1979-1995. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 55, 296-300.

Joiner, T.E. (2005). Why people die by suicide. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Joiner, T.E., Conwell, Y., Fitzpatrick, K.K., Witte, T.K., Schmidt, N.B., Berlim, M.T., et al. (2005). Four studies on how past and current suicidality relate even when “everything but the kitchen sink” is covaried. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 114, 291-303.

Joiner, Jr., T. E., Hollar, D., & Van Orden, K. A. (2006). On Buckeyes, Gators, Super Bowl Sunday, and the Miracle on Ice: “Pulling Together” is associated with lower suicide rates. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25, 180-196.

Joiner, T., Pettit, J. W., Walker, R. L., Voelz, Z. R., Cruz, J., Rudd, M. D., et al. (2002). Perceived burdensomeness and suicidality: Two studies on the suicide notes of those attempting and those completing suicide. Journal of Social & Clinical Psychology, 21, 531-545.

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Joiner, T., Van Orden, K., Witte, T., Selby, E., Ribeiro, J., Lewis, R., & Rudd, M.D. (in press). Main predictions of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Empirical tests in two samples of young adults. Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

Nock, M., Joiner, T., Gordon, K., Lloyd-Richardson, E., & Prinstein, M. (2006). Non-suicidal self-injury: Diagnostic correlates and relation to suicide attempts. Psychiatry Research, 144, 65-72.

Orbach, I., Mikulincer, M., King, R., Cohen, D., & Stein, D. (1997). Thresholds and tolerance of physical pain in suicidal and nonsuicidal adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65, 646-652.

Rudd, M.D., Joiner, T.E., & Rajab, M.H. (1996). Relationships among suicide ideators, attemptors, and multiple attemptors in a young-adult sample. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 105, 541-550.

Solomon, R. L. (1980). The opponent-process theory of acquired motivation: The costs of pleasure and benefits of pain. American Psychologist, 35, 691–712.

Van Orden, K. A., Lynam, M. E., Hollar, D., & Joiner, T. E., Jr. (2006). Perceived Burdensomeness as an Indicator of Suicidal Symptoms. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 30, 457-467.

Van Orden, K.A., Witte, T.K., Gordon, K.H., Bender, T.W., & Joiner, T.E. (2008). Suicidal desire and the capability for suicide: Tests of the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior among adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 72-83.

Van Orden, K., Witte, T., James, L., Castro, Y., Gordon, K., Braithwaite, S., et al. (2008). Suicidal ideation in college students varies across semesters: The mediating role of belongingness. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 38, 427-435.

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What does interpersonal psychological theory of suicidal behavior state? ›

The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior (Joiner, 2005) proposes that an individual will not die by suicide unless s/he has both the desire to die by suicide and the ability to do so.

Which psychological state of mind is most predictive of suicidal behavior? ›

Thomas's research landed on three core things that are most predictive of suicide attempts and death – perceived burdensomeness, lost belongingness and acquired capability. Perceived burdensomeness is a person's belief that their death is worth more than their life.

Which of the following are considered risk factors that influence suicidal behaviors? ›

Many factors contribute to suicide risk.
  • Previous suicide attempt.
  • History of depression and other mental illnesses.
  • Serious illness such as chronic pain.
  • Criminal/legal problems.
  • Job/financial problems or loss.
  • Impulsive or aggressive tendencies.
  • Substance use.
  • Current or prior history of adverse childhood experiences.

What are examples of perceived burdensomeness? ›

Perceived burdensomeness

Unemployment, medical or health problems, and incarceration are examples of situations in which a person may feel like they are a burden to others. It is important to note that the burdensomeness is "perceived", and is often a false belief.

What is the main concept of interpersonal theory? ›

the theory of personality developed by Harry Stack Sullivan , which is based on the belief that people's interactions with other people, especially significant others, determine their sense of security, sense of self, and the dynamisms that motivate their behavior.

What is the premise of the interpersonal theory of depression? ›

Coyne's (1976b) interpersonal theory of depression postulated that the combination of depressive symptoms and excessive reassurance-seeking leads to interpersonal problems (e.g., loneliness, devaluation).

What is the neuroscience of suicidal thoughts? ›

The brain has multiple stress responses, but the best-studied in relation to suicide is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the release of the stress hormone cortisol and is known to be upregulated in clinical depression.

What part of the brain is affected by suicidal thoughts? ›

“We've found many systems in the brain that are broken with suicide, especially in the front part above the eye—called the orbital prefrontal cortex. That area of the brain is involved in inhibiting behaviors that are damaging, like being unable to inhibit the urge to kill oneself,” says Dr.

Is suicidal behavior in the DSM 5? ›

In the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, text revision (DSM-5-TR), diagnostic codes were added for suicidal behavior and nonsuicidal self-injury in section 2 of DSM-5-TR, “other conditions that may be a focus of clinical attention” chapter.

What were the 7 major concepts of Sullivan's interpersonal theory? ›

He described seven developmental epochs: infancy, childhood, the juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence, and adulthood (Sullivan, 1953, 1954, 1964).

What were the 3 types of self in Sullivan's interpersonal theory? ›

The Interpersonal Theory explains three types of self: the good me, bad me, and not me. The “good me” versus the “bad me” based on social appraisal and the anxiety that results from negative feedback. The “not me” refers to the unknown, repressed component of the self.

What is interpersonal needs questionnaire? ›

Interpersonal Needs Questionnaire (INQ) is a self-report measure of perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness with five versions in recent studies. There are five versions of INQ. But results from studies using different versions are quite different.

What are the major components of interpersonal theory? ›

Theory of Interpersonal Relations in Nursing

Peplau theorized that nurse-patient relationships must pass through three phases in order to be successful: (a) orientation, (b) working, and (c) termination.

What are the stages of interpersonal theory? ›

His interpersonal theory emphasizes the importance of various developmental stages—infancy, childhood, the juvenile era, preadolescence, early adolescence, late adolescence, and adulthood.

What is the interpersonal approach in psychology? ›

​Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on relieving symptoms by improving interpersonal functioning. A central idea in IPT is that psychological symptoms can be understood as a response to current difficulties in everyday relationships with other people.

What are the 4 areas of focus in IPT? ›

IPT treatment strategies focus on four specific interpersonal problem areas: grief, interpersonal role disputes, role transitions, and interpersonal deficits.

What are the goals of IPT therapy? ›

The goals of interpersonal therapy (IPT) are to help you communicate better with others and address problems that contribute to your depression. Several studies found that IPT may be as effective as antidepressant medication for treating depression.

What are the theories under interpersonal theories? ›

There are three main concepts in this theory: society, self, and mind. Social acts (which create meaning) involve an initial gesture from one individual, a response to that gesture from another, and a result. Self-image comes from interaction with others.

What is increased suicidal tendency associated with? ›

Suicidal ideation is associated with depression and other mood disorders; however, many other mental disorders, life events and family events can increase the risk of suicidal ideation.

What is the current DSM 2022? ›

The latest version of the manual is the DSM-5-TR. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR) was released on March 18, 2022 by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

What is the DSM update 2022? ›

The revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR) will include updates and clarifying modifications to the criteria sets for more than 70 disorders as well as updates to the descriptive text.

What is the latest version of DSM? ›

Also known as the DSM-5, this is the main guide for mental health providers in the U.S. The latest version, the DSM-5-TR, was published in 2022.

What is interpersonal behavior in psychology? ›

Interpersonal behavior is the behavior and actions that are present in human relationships. The way in which people communicate, and all that this entails, is considered interpersonal behavior. Interpersonal behavior may include both verbal communication and nonverbal cues, such as body language or facial expressions.

What is the focus of interpersonal therapy for depression? ›

By addressing interpersonal issues, interpersonal therapy for depression puts emphasis on the way symptoms are related to a person's relationships, including family and peers. The immediate goals of treatment are rapid symptom reduction and improved social adjustment.

What theory is interpersonal psychotherapy based on? ›

IPT is a type of therapy that utilizes a uniquely structured model for the treatment of mental health issues. Based on attachment and communication theories, IPT is designed to help people address current concerns and improve interpersonal relationships.

What are some examples of interpersonal behavior? ›

If you're looking for ideas and examples, here is a list of the most common interpersonal skills:
  • Awareness (of yourself and others)
  • Caring about other people.
  • Collaborating and working well together with others.
  • Comforting people when they need it.
  • Clear communication skills.
  • Conflict management and resolution skills.
Nov 24, 2022

What are the four interpersonal behaviors? ›

Most interpersonal skills can be grouped under one of four main forms of communication: verbal, listening, written and non-verbal communication. Some skills such as recognition of stress and attitude are important to all forms of interpersonal communication.

What are the types of interpersonal Behaviour? ›

There are basically three broad categories of Interpersonal Behaviors viz: Aggressive, Non Assertive and Assertive behaviors.

What are the four main areas of IPT? ›

IPT treatment strategies focus on four specific interpersonal problem areas: grief, interpersonal role disputes, role transitions, and interpersonal deficits.

What are the three phases of IPT? ›

IPT has three phases: beginning, middle, and end. The initial phase can last up to three sessions. During that time, the therapist has specific tasks (viz., obtain a psychiatric history and interpersonal inventory, offer a case formulation).

What is this theory all about interpersonal psychoanalysis? ›

Interpersonal psychoanalysis is based on the theories of American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan (1892–1949). Sullivan believed that the details of a patient's interpersonal interactions with others can provide insight into the causes and cures of mental disorder.

What is the structure of IPT? ›

This chapter is a brief overview of the structure of interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT), emphasizing a view of the forest rather than the trees. IPT is divided into four segments: the Assessment/Initial Phase, the Intermediate Phase, the Conclusion of Acute Treatment, and Maintenance Treatment (Figure 3.1). patient.

What are the limitations of IPT? ›

Some of the limitations of IPT are that it doesn't address chronic issues such as character pathology, distant familial conflict or other psychiatric disorders. The research suggests that IPT is not indicated for use with substance treatment.

What is a weakness of IPT therapy? ›

One potential weakness of IPT is its shorter timeline, which may not offer enough support for people with chronic or relapsing mental health issues. That said, IPT practitioners recognize that maintenance sessions may be necessary for recurring symptoms.

Does IPT have empirical support for the treatment? ›

Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) is an empirically validated treatment for a variety of psychiatric disorders. The evidence for IPT supports its use for a variety of affective disorders, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders, and for a wide range of patients from children and adolescents to the elderly.

Is IPT evidence based? ›

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is an evidence-based psychotherapy for depression (Cuijpers et al., 2011) that, like many time-limited therapies, was originally designed to be administered as a 12-to-16 week intervention (Klerman, Weissman, Rounsaville, & Chevron, 1984).


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