Are smarter people more likely to kill themselves?
September 17, 2008 9:44 PM   Subscribe

It seems like most suicides I hear about are very intelligent people, but is there actually any established correlation between intelligence and suicide? Or has this been conclusively rejected as a risk factor? I haven't been able to find any mention of intelligence in various discussions of suicide risk factors.
posted by scottreynen to Society & Culture (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is not my area of expertise but this article on the subject looks interesting and has cites to other articles on the topic.
posted by eisenkr at 9:59 PM on September 17, 2008

Almost certainly confirmation bias. The key phrase is "that I hear about."

Most people also believe that most suicides are young people, when the truth is the exact opposite. This is because the suicides of young or exceptional people are branded as "tragic" and stick in your mind, while those of the elderly and more ordinary people are quickly forgotten.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:19 PM on September 17, 2008

this also brings up something that I bet there's a technical name for, but I don't know it.

I'll call it "just world narrative." People want to believe the world is fair and it all balances out. For example, a lot of people believe that those who are poor economically are genuinely better human beings than the rich. It just feels right, like the world should work that way, even if the idea doesn't hold up to careful examination.

By the same token, a lot of people want to believe that the exceptionally intelligent are punished in other ways for their gift. Thus the enduring belief in the ostracized school brain, despite studies showing that the smartest kids are more likely to be the most popular and most athletic, too. Thus the coworker who once said to me, "imagine how depressing it must be to know you're the smartest person in the room." To which I thought, "sounds a lot more fun than knowing you're the dumbest person in the room."

So I think people WANT to believe that the very intelligent are more prone to mental illness and even suicide, but I doubt you'll find any hard evidence to back it up. I could be wrong, I'm not a psychologist, but it just doesn't stand to reason.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 PM on September 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

Perhaps smarter people are more likely to plan to succeed. No, seriously, I think you only hear about the "oh, it's so tragic," suicides. Very few people care when a middle-aged, overweight woman who was a bit of a disappointment to her parents and never really went anywhere and hasn't even had a date in the last two years plans her own death. Oh, I just made myself sad.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:53 PM on September 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Leaving aside biochemical influence on mood, which is independent of intelligence: it is broadly true that the smarter you are, the more things you know about, and can think about. Since the possible bad things significantly outnumber the possible good things in any given situation (which is analogous to the observation that every happy family is alike, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way), then the more things you think about, the more of these are going to be bad.

To put it another way:
"See the happy moron,
He doesn't give a damn.
I wish I were a moron,
- My god! Perhaps I am!"
-- Dorothy Parker.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:54 PM on September 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Many people have noticed a connection between creativity and bipolar disorder. Touched with Fire, by Kay Jamison, is a very carefully researched book about the phenomenon. It sold a lot of copies when it first came out, despite being significantly more scholarly in tone than the typical popular nonfiction.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:57 PM on September 17, 2008

This article indicates that 'eminent poets' have a suicide rate of 20% as compared to 4% in the general population -- possibly related.
posted by mattholomew at 3:36 AM on September 18, 2008

Sorry, could have linked that better. (Apparently I'm a low suicide risk)
posted by mattholomew at 3:37 AM on September 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Google is your friend! A cursory search of google scholar shows lots of papers that confirm this association, both in patients with schizophrenia, and on a country by country basis. I can't immediately find a paper that confirms this for the general population within the US though.
posted by roofus at 3:49 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sort of. Google results for "existential depression"
posted by Nattie at 4:10 AM on September 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the pointers to real research on this. I always forget Google scholar exists.
posted by scottreynen at 5:14 AM on September 18, 2008

It occurs to me that people of below-average intelligence might deal with serious depression or untenable situations not so much by consciously carrying out a suicide plan, but through more prosaic methods such as getting extremely drunk and operating cars or guns (to provide just one example). So it wouldn't go in the statistics as sucide but it would have the same end result.
posted by matildaben at 6:03 PM on September 18, 2008

This is old, old, old, but the thing that pops into my head is "egoistic" vs. "anomic" suicide, where the former is definitely correlated with intelligence. I'm a little shady on the details, though -- it's Durkheim on suicide, in the book of that title.
posted by puckish at 5:13 PM on July 10, 2009

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