Development of Impulsivity and Capability as Related to Suicide Attempt Risk

Development of Impulsivity and Capability as Related to Suicide Attempt Risk

Stephanie Kasen, Ph.D.

Stephanie Kasen, Ph.D., received an AFSP Standard Research Grant to investigate the development of impulsivity, feelings of capability and suicide attempts from ages 10-25. Using a unique longitudinal database of 766 children and their mothers assessed three times across ten years, Dr. Kasen examined the trajectories of 68 youth who reported a suicide attempt (8.8% of the sample) since the initial assessment and compared them with 702 youth who reported they had not made a suicide attempt after the initial assessment. The participants were age 13.7 at baseline, 16.1 at three years and 22.0 at ten years. Her findings were published in the journal Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior in April 2011.

Impulsivity was measured by a questionnaire assessing behavioral control, regard for social limits, ease of being provoked and maladaptive or inappropriate responses. Capability, or a sense of being capable, was measured by a questionnaire that reflected attributes related to self-esteem and a sense of mastery. She found that all youth had declining impulsivity over time but those who had made a suicide attempt reported greater impulsivity at all time-points and declined more slowly. At age 17, those with attempts had impulsivity levels six times greater than those who had not made an attempt.

In contrast, a sense of capability increased over time for all participants but those who had made attempts had lower levels of capability at each time point and never reached the levels that those who had not made an attempt reached. Their rate of increasing capability was slower than nonattempters. Maternal risk (defined as having had a mother who had a history of a Major Depressive Disorder or a suicide attempt) and a history of having experienced physical or sexual abuse were found to be related to impulsivity but not capability.

Dr. Kasen’s study afforded the opportunity to examine the relationships among impulsivity, sense of capability and suicide attempts over the developmental period of adolescence. It shows that while some degree of increased impulsivity in the early teens is common, excessive impulsivity or limited decline of impulsivity is not typical and may relate to attempt risk. Simultaneously, youth develop an increased sense of capability over time and feeling less capable may indicate increased risk for a suicide attempt, especially in the context of increased impulsivity. This affords developing interventions that assist in improving socially appropriate behavior and increasing a sense of personal capability to mitigate the risk for suicide attempts in adolescents.

Dr. Kasen is a research scientist in the Division of Epidemiology at New York State Psychiatric Institute, and Associate Clinical Professor of Medical Psychology in Psychiatry, College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University. Click here to read more about Dr. Kasen's Standard Research Grant. 

Published articles from this study:

  • Kasen S, Cohen P, Chen H. (2011) Developmental course of impulsivity and capability from Age 10 to Age 25 as related to trajectory of suicide attempt in a community cohort. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 41(2): 180-192.