Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Although rates of death by suicide in older adults in the United States appear to be decreasing, older adults remain at higher risk for completed suicide than any other age group (Center for Disease Control, 2005). In looking at suicidal behavior in particular, several researchers (e.g. Caine & Conwell, 2001) have suggested that one important way one might begin to understand risk factors for suicide in late life is to identify distal factors that put older adults at risk for suicidal behavior. This study explicitly set out to examine one possible distal risk factor. That is, a strong emphasis on autonomy. The notion that a strong emphasis on autonomy (which can be defined as a cluster of behaviors reflecting an excessive, perfectionistic value placed on achievement, control, and being separate from others; Bieling, Beck, & Brown, 2004) may be a distal risk factor for depression was first posited by Beck, Epstein, and Harrison (1982) as part of Beck's cognitive theory of depression. Specifically, Beck and colleagues (1982) hypothesized that individuals who have a strong emphasis on autonomy might become depressed as a result of achievement-related stressors or stressors that threaten the individual's independence (this is termed the Congruency Hypothesis). Past research has demonstrated a relation between depression and a strong emphasis on autonomy in both younger and older adults. One study (O'Riley et al., 2008) demonstrated a relation between two subscales on a measure of autonomy (i.e. Defensive Separation and Excessive Perfectionism) and suicidal ideation in younger adults; however, these variables have not been examined in older adults. Thus, the present study set out to examine whether a strong emphasis on autonomy is related to suicidal ideation in older adults. In addition, several exploratory research questions were examined, including: (1) whether the different subscales of a commonly used measure of autonomy (i.e. Need for Control, Defensive Separation, and Excessive Perfectionism) predict suicidal ideation in older adults (2) whether the relation between a strong emphasis on autonomy and suicidal ideation in older adults is moderated by functional impairment (3) whether willingness to seek help mediated the relation between a strong emphasis on autonomy and suicidal ideation in older adults (4) whether a strong emphasis on autonomy would mediate the relation between gender and suicidal ideation in older adults and (5) whether a strong emphasis on autonomy would predict suicidal ideation in older adults even when controlling for depressive symptoms. In order to examine these research questions, 88 older adults (53% male) were asked to complete a mailed paper and pencil survey, which included a measure of suicidal ideation, a measure of autonomy, a measure of functional impairment, and a measure of depressive symptoms. Results indicated that only need for control was a significant, positive predictor of suicidal ideation in older adults. No other hypotheses were supported. These findings are of interest because they suggest that the relation between a strong emphasis on autonomy and suicidal ideation may differ between younger and older adults. The results of this study provide important information for the development or tailoring of prevention and intervention programs for suicidal behavior in late life.
O'Riley, Alisa A., "The role of autonomy in suicidal ideation among older adults" (2010). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 3109.