Is everybody happy . . . how do you know?

August 11, 1995

What does the word "unhappy" make you think of? Your answer to this question could show how your memory works, and this in turn could indicate how likely you are to attempt suicide.

At the University of Wales in Bangor researchers have been looking at how people remember facts from their past. The research has shown that depressed and suicidal people have a retrieval problem. Asked what they associate with the word "unhappy", they answer in very general terms, rather than by referring to a specific event.

Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at Bangor, argues that memory is a mix of conscious and unconscious search strategies. When asked to remember an unhappy event, it first asks: "What type of thing makes me unhappy?" and then recalls examples.

Professor Williams says in this month's Medical Research Council bulletin: "Suicidal people appear to get stuck at the first stage . . . Even a small negative event can activate an over-general description of the past. The result is that the mind is quickly dominated by such biased summaries as 'I've always been a failure' and 'Nobody's ever really liked me'."

The research gives hope to those suffering from depression. A recent review by the MRC of what was known about suicide indicated that up to 90 per cent of suicide victims suffer from mental illness at the time of death.

One of the most successful ways of dealing with this sort of illness has been pioneered by Marsha Lineham in Seattle in the United States. Aimed at "chronically para-suicidal patients", it combines weekly individual and group therapy session to help individuals discuss and manage their suicidal thoughts and feelings. The emphasis is on teaching people to manage their emotional crisis - rather than running away. When patients receiving Linehan's therapy were compared with a group in normal psychotherapy, it was found that, over a year, about a third fewer deliberately injured themselves.

Professor Williams argues that such techniques can help those with memory problems who have particular difficulties thinking of alternative and positive solutions to their problems, to think - and remember - again.

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