Hagan publishes suicide research

Research by Assistant Professor of Psychology Christopher Hagan provides one more piece of information to better understand suicide and why it’s on the rise across the country.

photo of Christopher Hagan
Christopher Hagan

“Over the past 20 years, suicide rates in the United States have gone up about 30%,” Hagan said. “We now lose nearly 50,000 Americans of all ages, races, genders, religions, economic statuses, and regions to suicide every year. Suicide is a growing, but preventable problem.”

Some of his latest research published in Psychological Medicine in December of 2019, “Interoceptive deficits, non-suicidal self-injury, and suicide risk: a multi-sample study of indirect effects” looks at a compilation of datasets that include more than 3,000 people. 

“We were interested in looking at interoception, which is basically how aware you are and how you feel about how your body is functioning and how you are physically feeling,” Hagan said. “For example, can you accurately assess how hungry you are, if your heartbeat is racing or slow, or how anxious do you get if you feel your heart beating quickly? Things like that. We know that this is connected to self-injury and suicide, but not in a really detailed way.”

The participants in the study came from all around the country and self-reported issues around their lack of understanding their bodily cues. The research team wanted to know if that deficit was driving suicidal behavior. 

“Overall we found pretty consistent evidence that interoceptive awareness, at least the way we measured it, is not related to suicidal thoughts,” Hagan said. “So having good or poor insight into how your body is working doesn’t really explain whether or not you’ve had thoughts of killing yourself, but it is related to a higher likelihood that you’ll engage in self-injury in a variety of ways.”

Hagan said that self-injury versatility (i.e., hurting yourself in several different ways) leads to a higher likelihood of suicide attempts, which means those deficits have an indirect but important relationship to suicide attempts. 

Hagan says understanding this piece of the puzzle can help in the fight against suicide rates, which have been drastically increasing for years. If psychologists and psychiatrists teach people how to be more aware of and cope with these deficits, it could help save lives.

“If we help people work on that early on, which is relatively easy to do compared to preventing suicide among people who are already suicidal or having people no longer self-injure, it might help reduce the capability some of these people have to take their own life.”

Hagan is currently finishing a study of specific interoceptive deficits and their role in suicidal thoughts and behaviors and how these deficits may impact Asian-Americans differently than other groups.

Hagan started teaching at Cornell College in the fall of 2019. He’s originally from southern California and says his favorite class to teach is abnormal psychology. The professor focuses his research on suicide and the related areas of non-suicidal self-injury, murder-suicide, and suicide terrorism. 

If you or a loved one are struggling or need help, text “HOPELINE” to 741741 (Center for Suicide Awareness) or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255.