Exploring the nature of social relationships and self-injurious thoughts and behaviours

McClelland, Heather Louise (2022) Exploring the nature of social relationships and self-injurious thoughts and behaviours. D Clin Psy thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Background: Suicide is a major public health concern, with the World Health Organization estimating that approximately 703, 000 people die by suicide every year worldwide. Interventions for mental health support and suicide prevention have shifted focus in recent years, to promote more community-based strategies in addition to individual interventions. Furthermore, the role of interpersonal factors (e.g., loneliness, perfectionism, trauma) on mental health and suicide risk has received increasing recognition by both government agencies and the general public in light of the restrictions that were introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic. These social restrictions have been shown to be associated with strained relationships and have highlighted the role loneliness, family support, social support and social connections can have on mental health.

Aims: The current series of studies, underpinned by theories including the Integrated Motivational-Volitional (IMV) model, aimed to explore the relationship between loneliness and self-injurious thoughts and/or behaviour within the context of other interpersonal factors and established drivers of suicide risk. To achieve this aim, the current thesis addressed three overarching research questions: 1) with a particular focus on loneliness, which interpersonal factors are associated with risk of self-injurious thoughts and behaviours?; 2) which interpersonal factors differentiate between those who have a history of self-injurious behaviours, history of self-injurious thoughts only, and no history of self-injurious thoughts or behaviours?; 3) what does an in-depth exploration reveal about the role of loneliness in relation to self-injurious thoughts and behaviour?

Methods: A range of research and analytical methods were employed to address the research questions. Firstly, a systematic review and meta-analysis (Chapter 2) was conducted to explore the association between loneliness and later self-injurious thoughts and behaviour (SIB). Socio-demographic characteristics (age, gender, geographic location) and depression were also investigated to identify what role, if any, they may have in the association between loneliness and SIB. The findings of the review informed the subsequent quantitative and qualitative studies. Using an anonymous cross-sectional online survey reported in Chapter 3, 400 participants were recruited to explore where loneliness might fit within the context of the IMV model. In Chapter 4, Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis was used to explore the role of interpersonal factors prior to a suicide attempt in ten participants with lived experience. The findings of these studies led to the third and final study. This study quantitatively explored different forms of loneliness, as well as parental attachment, in the association with SIB (Chapter 5; n=582 participants). The final study also explored whether depression mediated between different forms of loneliness and suicidal ideation.

Results: The meta-analysis (n=33 studies) confirmed a significant, prospective relationship between loneliness and both self-injurious thoughts and self-injurious behaviours. Furthermore, it indicated that depression was a significant mediator between loneliness and later SIB (n=8 studies). Narratively (n=38 studies), there was evidence to suggest that a significant association between loneliness and later SIB was likely to be identified between ten weeks and five years after baseline in those aged 13-22 or ≥54 years old, or among those based in Europe. Empirical findings in Chapter 3 revealed that within the context of the IMV model, loneliness was likely to operate as a motivational moderator; moderating the association between entrapment and suicidal ideation. It also distinguished between those with no history of self-injurious thoughts and behaviours and those with any history of SIB. Loneliness was also found to significantly moderate between childhood emotional abuse and suicidal ideation, and partially mediate between all childhood traumas investigated and suicidal ideation and between socially prescribed perfectionism and suicidal ideation. Findings from Chapter 4 indicated that participants experienced different forms of loneliness prior to suicide attempt, specifically social isolation, lack of emotional connectedness and lack of feeling understood. Further superordinate themes included unique patterns of social support, emotional secrecy, personality traits and social transition. These qualitative findings guided the aims of the final study. To this end, in Chapter 5, four forms of loneliness (family, romantic, social and global) were explored in detail, with the analysis revealing that each operated as a motivational moderator (within the IMV model) when all other forms of loneliness were controlled for. Additionally, stress mediated between socially prescribed perfectionism and all forms of loneliness, with a full mediating effect evident between perfectionism and romantic loneliness. In turn, depression independently mediated between family, global and romantic loneliness in relation to suicidal ideation though this mediating effect of depression between romantic loneliness and suicidal ideation was significantly smaller than the other effects.

Conclusion: Three research questions were addressed in this thesis. Loneliness was a significant predictor of later SIB (addressing question 1) and distinguished those with a history of self-harm ideation from those with no history of self-harm ideation or behaviour (question 2). Childhood emotional abuse, socially supported coping, socially prescribed perfectionism, depression and suicidal ideation were also found to be associated with SIB (questions 1 & 2). Loneliness was found to be a particular risk factor for later SIB in specific demographic populations, with further findings suggesting romantic loneliness may be the most pernicious of all forms of loneliness (question 3). These findings add to the body of evidence that loneliness is not synonymous with social isolation. Furthermore, loneliness must be recognised as a multi-dimensional risk factor for SIB. Romantic loneliness may pose a particular risk to wellbeing, especially for those with high traits of socially prescribed perfectionism. Strategies to reduce SIB may benefit from focusing on a range of interpersonal factors across the life-course (e.g., reducing the occurrence/effects of childhood trauma) and social support. This thesis offers evidence that loneliness, especially romantic loneliness, is a significant predictor of SIB which warrants further investigation of known at-risk groups.

Item Type: Thesis (D Clin Psy)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Colleges/Schools: College of Medical Veterinary and Life Sciences > School of Health & Wellbeing > General Practice and Primary Care
Supervisor's Name: O'Connor, Professor Rory and Evans, Professor Jonathan
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-83306
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 12 Dec 2022 16:38
Last Modified: 14 Dec 2022 13:35
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83306
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/83306
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