Person-Centered Care for Suicide Prevention

Person-Centered Care for Suicide Prevention
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 24 January, 2023

Why does an individual choose to harm themselves? What’s in the minds of people who decide they don’t want to live anymore?  Surprisingly, the answer is simple. It’s suffering. Endless suffering, along with devastating hopelessness. Unfortunately, it’s a more than common experience.

In fact, the rate of adolescents and young adults who are committing self-harming behaviors and attempting suicide is on the increase. It could be due to many causes. For example, sociocultural factors, lack of purpose, trauma, loneliness, bullying, etc. Whatever the underlying reason may be, such a serious and sometimes even silenced reality requires skillful and effective assistance and care strategies.

It’s imperative that social policies become sensitive to the ever-growing problem. For example, rates of depression and anxiety among young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have increased considerably. Similarly, emergency room visits by people under 25 for instances of self-harm are on the increase and almost 74 percent of people who take their own lives are men.

It’s time we started reacting to these statistics. One of the most necessary steps is in designing better strategies for the prevention of suicide. There’s one psychological resource of particular value, person-centered care.

Suicide prevention efforts almost always focus on biomedical approaches. However, beyond these diagnoses lie individuals with unique realities that we must understand.

Sad man sitting on bed needing Person Centered Care
Person-centered therapy is based on conversation. It seeks for the individual to express themselves thanks to positive and unconditional appreciation from the therapist.

Person-centered care

Imagine you have an injury and walk into a coffee shop. Visualize the scene. No one sees the cut on your leg. You sit down carefully and look around you. No one perceives or notices your presence. Even less your pain. You suffer in silence and you feel invisible. This is what an individual who’s suffering feels like. The person who, at one of those awful moments, makes a fatal decision.

It’s clear that they want to stop suffering. However, they also need others to assist them, empathize with their pain, be there for them, and provide them with help. Indeed, anyone who considers the idea of ending their life needs more than a simple diagnosis of depression. They don’t need another label. What they’re looking for and what they deserve is effective, fast, empathetic, and sensitive help.

Tom Kitwood is a psychologist who specializes in caring for people with dementia. He claims that human beings aren’t merely diagnostic labels. They’re beings with particularities and unique needs that must be understood.

When someone feels validated and cared for without judgment, their mental narrative changes. This is why person-centered care is a really valid resource in suicide prevention.

The origins and purpose of person-centered care

Person-centered care is based on a therapeutic model developed by the humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers. He claimed that each person is unique and their purpose should be to aspire to a full life awakening their strengths and self-knowledge. In this context, the therapist ceases to have a directive role and is a facilitator instead.

This means that the therapist is there to listen, validate, and create an empathic environment that facilitates positive self-discovery. It’s in this conversational process that they discover their client’s problem and what needs healing. When this type of therapy is transferred to suicide prevention, the benefits are extremely interesting.

Person-centered care doesn’t focus on the biomedical label (the clinical diagnosis) In fact, it seeks to understand the individual who’s trapped in hopelessness and can’t see a way out of their discomfort. An attempt is made to understand and respect their particularities, gradually reshape the meaning of their experiences, and give shape to new vital goals and meanings.

A human being is an autonomous individual who makes their own decisions. They have unique experiences and singularities that differentiate them from the rest. They need to be understood, validated, and accompanied in order to change. 

Understanding, respect, and congruence

In 2015, The University of Washington School of Medicine (USA) conducted a study on person-centered care. They defined it as an interpersonal alliance from a humanistic perspective that seeks to promote healthy changes in the lifestyle of individuals.

The theory sounds perfect, but what about the practice? How can someone who’s self-harming or thinking about taking their own life be helped? Let’s explore the basic principles of person-centered care.

  • It applies unconditional positive regard to the individual. Moreover, it’s nonjudgmental and transmits great respect to everything the client expresses, feels, or needs.
  • Empathic understanding. The therapist trained in person-centered care creates a context of understanding and absolute warmth toward the person in front of them. They listen to and understand every act, thought, emotion, and experience of their client. In this way, they facilitate change, supporting their clients so they feel validated and find the strength to find new purposes.
  • Consistency and authenticity. Therapists are accessible, human, and congruent. They don’t assume a position of superiority. They’re not managers, nor do they apply a role of authority. They work from a position of connection and closeness.
Face of a teenage girl with anxiety who needs Person-Centered Care
Currently, adolescents and young adults are one of the population sectors that require the most attention in terms of suicide prevention.

Understanding and accompaniment: a necessary approach in primary care

In 2021, the University of Guelph (Canada) conducted a study. It claimed that the frequency of cases of self-harm that were registered in eight-year-old children increased when they were between ten and 17 years of age. This is a reality that, for primary care and emergency centers, is a challenge. In fact, it’s a complex reality that’s difficult to deal with.

As a rule, behind self-harm lies a mental health problem. Among young people, it’s usually major depression or eating disorders. In many of these cases, the self-harming individual is 5.5 times more likely to commit suicide. Undeniably, action and prevention protocols are needed.

Person-centered care is a strategy in which the many health professionals who treat these young people should be trained. There are many ways of connecting with these youngsters. For example, the therapist could just start by saying something like ” I know you’re scared and don’t feel well, and it may be hard for you to talk about your self-harm, but I’d like to understand your experience, what you think, and how you feel…”.

Finally, there are thousands of reasons why someone may decide to take their own life. However, there’s only one way to avoid it: to create a conscious social community capable of being close, offering help, and understanding and breaking taboos. Therefore, social policies, resources, commitments, and intentions are paramount. Indeed, when it comes to supporting those who are suffering in silence, we can all make a difference.

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  • Duberstein, P. R., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). Person-centered prevention of suicide among older adults. In M. K. Nock (Ed.), The Oxford handbook of suicide and self-injury (pp. 113–132). Oxford University Press.
  • Stallman HM. Coping planning: a patient-centred and strengths-focused approach to suicide prevention training. Australas Psychiatry. 2018 Apr;26(2):141-144. doi: 10.1177/1039856217732471. Epub 2017 Oct 2. PMID: 28967263.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.