Lack of positive future thinking

Studies of suicidal future thinking have generally relied on the Beck Hopelessness Scale (Beck et al., 1974) as a measure of hopelessness about the future. This is a 20-item true/false self-report measure that assesses global outlook for the future (for example, 'the future seems dark to me'). More recently, MacLeod and colleagues (MacLeod et al., 1993; 1997; 1998) examined future-directed thinking in parasuicidal patients more directly by adapting the standard verbal fluency paradigm. In the standard verbal fluency task, participants are given a time limit and asked to generate as many exemplars of a category as they can, for example words beginning with a particular letter. In the 'future-thinking task' developed by these authors, individuals were asked to think of future positive events (things they were looking forward to) and negative events (things they were not looking forward to), for a range of time periods, ranging from the next 24 hours to the next 10 years. Participants were given a time limit, and a fluency measure of the number of different events that they generated for each category was recorded. This method has the advantage of being a direct measure rather than a self-report measure; that is, it provides an objective measure (count) of responses rather than relying on participants saying how many items of each type they could generate if they were asked. The second major advantage is that it provides separate scores for positive and negative future thinking, in line with a range of theoretical approaches which distinguish between positively valenced and negatively valenced psychological systems (e.g., Ito & Cacciopo, 1998). The results have consistently shown that parasuicide patients are less able than controls to provide events they are looking forward to, but do not differ from controls in the number of events they are not looking forward to (MacLeod et al., 1993; 1997; 1998). It therefore appears that the future thinking of parasuicidal individuals is characterised by a lack of positive anticipation in the absence of any increase in negative anticipation.

The lack of positive anticipation that characterises suicidal individuals fits well with the research on reasons for living. One of the main ways that reasons for living might inhibit suicidality is by protecting people from hopelessness about the future. In fact, a number of the items on the RFL specifically measure a view of the future that anticipates positive and meaningful experiences. A study by Greene (1989) also indirectly supports this view. She found that depressed women high in hopelessness differed from equally depressed women who were low in hopelessness by having young children. One interpretation is that having young children provides a trajectory into the future that protects the person from hopelessness in the face of depression.

It has been suggested that suicidal behaviour is fundamentally about wanting to escape (Shneidman, 1999; Williams, 2001). The person might be trying to escape from depression or from other, different painful states of awareness. Hopelessness about the future is the key element of depression that leads to suicidal behaviour. In the case of hopelessness, the escape is not necessarily about escaping stress or negative experiences, but it can be about trying to get away from the painful state of mind that arises when someone has no positive future to look forward to.

Letting Go, Moving On

Letting Go, Moving On

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