Study suggests depressive symptoms help victims of adversity elicit support from others

Jennifer E. Engen

Suffering from depression can be an extremely isolating experience. Many people feel alone when struggling with suicidal thoughts and are encouraged to reach out and ask for help. Research published in Evolution and Human Behavior suggests that depression and suicidality signal need to others and are more likely to garner the support desired than other tactics, such as simply crying.

(If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or follow this link to their online chat.)

“Suicide is responsible for more deaths than all wars and homicides combined, yet it remains a profound mystery. We hoped that concepts from evolutionary biology would help illuminate suicidal behaviors,” said study author Edward H. Hagen, a professor of anthropology at Washington State University.

Depression is often thought of as isolating socially. Sufferers can become withdrawn, seek constant reassurance, become irritable, or more. There is evidence that a majority of people who are suffering from depression are dealing with adverse life events, many relating to conflict. The popular belief is that depression leads to negative social abilities, which in turn leads to being rejected socially, which can certainly worsen depression.

Alternatively, this study seeks to find out if depression and suicidality can be a benefit to people who are dealing with difficult situations, due to the increased level of belief and willingness to help from others.

Hagen and his colleagues recruited 1,240 adult participants through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk who were located in the United States or India. Participants read vignettes that involved a female alleging to have been wronged in a private setting and a conflict of interest to make her seem potentially manipulative. They then completed a survey asking about how much they believed the victim in the story. Next, participants were randomly assigned to read about various emotional signals from the victim, after which they answered more questions.

“The signals involved the participant encountering the victim some time after the adverse event and observing, e.g., crying; sad expressions; reduced effort, fatigue, and poor personal hygiene; and suicidal self-injury,” the researchers explained.

Results showed that people were more likely to believe and want to help the woman in the vignette when the signal was costly. Participants were more likely to want to help people they believed, and the more serious the signal was (i.e. suicide attempt), the less manipulative the person seemed to participants.

Depression (signaled by reduced effort, fatigue, and poor personal hygiene) and suicide attempt garnered similar levels of belief, but suicide attempt garnered a higher level of action, implying that such a costly signal could make people believe help is needed even if they doubt the veracity of the story. Participants were also more likely to believe the person in the vignette was mentally ill when the signal was costlier.

“Depression and especially suicidal thoughts and behaviors are cries for help,” Hagen told PsyPost. “Because the circumstances typically involve substantial adversity and, importantly, conflict, the parties involved might have to make major concessions to alleviate adversity and resolve conflicts.”

This study took steps into understanding how signaling can affect support and help for people experiencing depressive symptoms. Despite this, the research has some limitations. “This is a vignette study,” Hagen said. “Participants reported their beliefs regarding fictional accounts, and stated how they thought​ they might respond, but they didn’t actually have to respond to a genuine cry for help, which in real life would involve much more time and effort on their part.”

The study, “Depression and suicidality as evolved credible signals of need in social conflicts“, was authored by Michael R. Gaffney, Kai H. Adams, Kristen L. Syme, and Edward H. Hagen.

Study suggests depressive symptoms help victims of adversity elicit support from others

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