Bias and Denial in Psychology: Missing the Signs of Suicide

Suicide is the clinician’s worst nightmare and it is the utmost fear of any family or friend of a person who is depressed.

This horrific act brings the universe of emotions down upon us in overwhelming proportion and we all need more ways to help and to clearly recognize signs that an individual has reached the point of taking his or her life.

A suicide occurs once every 40 seconds world-wide and scientific research has demonstrated that treatment for depression in all of its forms is far from effective.

We still don’t know the cause and we have no cure. New drugs, new combinations of drugs and efforts to find the “cure” for depressive states have not given professionals or families a Golden Pathway towards understanding the roots of depression.

A recent article in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology even purports to have found the cause and cure in “ prospective thinking” (expecting disasters in future events) and cognitive therapy.

This approach is not backed by scientific evidence and doesn’t go far along the road to picking up the flashing signals that desperately depressed individuals hide and others miss and then deny.

Look at Ourselves

Our first step in this journey towards understanding and helping people who are in extreme emotional distress and are high risk for self harm is to look at ourselves and the vital part that we play in the situation.

Suicide is not an independent act; other people and situations are involved and interact in the dynamics that lead to the act of suicide.

When we include ourselves; either as clinicians or family and friends of the depressed individual, we are relying upon the perspective of older cultures that believe we are all interconnected and inter dependent and we all play a part in both positive and negative scenarios.

With this perspective, we need to put our Western cultural views on the shelf but we will come to a better understanding about severe depression and what we need to do to intervene and to help.

In Western culture, there is formidable social and psychological pressure to conform to the norms that are embedded within the institutions with whom we interact.

For most of us, the ‘rules of engagement” are the  assumptions and the “should” that we take for granted.

The most relevant for our purposes here are: an individual in this culture is “normal” in mood and behavior; happy, productive, hard working and progress-oriented.

We should be independent in functioning, able to solve problems quickly and efficiently. We should perceive the future as a situation that requires planning and accumulation of resources.

On the other side of the coin, if we find that we are “abnormal” (unhappy, fearful, angry or in extreme emotional distress) we should seek medical help because the problem is located within ourselves.

These assumptions are reinforced by media, political and economic institutions and the domain of psychology itself.

The newly re-discovered “positive psychology” and many interventions in cognitive and other forms of treatment focus upon channeling thinking and feeling into positive realms and deconstructing negative cognitions and emotions.

Therapists as well as non-therapists are influenced by these assumptions and this bias is, in turn, nurtured by the human tendencies to follow herd, to be rewarded quickly, to ignore information that does not fit into the general cultural template, to defend the status quo and to prefer things that are familiar rather than unfamiliar.

As a consequence of these constricting and defining rules and tendencies, the individual who brazenly confronts, questions and seeks to change the status quo is often greeted with criticism and even expulsion from the in-group.

The conformist, however may well find him or herself overwhelmed with demands, isolated in his pursuits, feeling ashamed and weak when he cannot succeed or when he is “abnormal.”  The person who is influenced by these rules will go to extremes to solve problems quickly and that usually involves pills, potions, programs.

There is a harsh stigma attached to being “abnormal” and failing to meet the cultural standards.

For professional clinicians, this bias and the fear of being stigmatized may lead to denial of their own conforming blindness and to missing the important signs that a high risk client is exhibiting.

Putting Bias Aside

Looking now at Depression and suicidality and attempting to put our bias aside, we may take the second step and that involves putting some new information together.  These insights emerge from research on (linguistics) language, on emotions and prospective thinking.

The clues involve the depressed person’s overuse of the pronouns Iand “me” instead of “we,” the anxiety that is inferred when the person talks about social situations and predictions of a dire and distressful future.

Here we have the clues of “negative self-reference,” “social anxiety,” “negative prospective cognition.” These three factors can be the focus of our attentive listening when we are in contact with a seriously distressed person.

They signal that the individual may be close to the precipice where hopelessness in the past, present and future combine with shame, the negative self-image, and anxiety to provoke a desperate act.  The clues may be seen in such simple narratives:

“I won’t go there again. I was so stupid the last time that I totally messed up the meeting. I have a habit of forgetting what I am supposed to say. I think that I am just not cut out to be anything more than a waste and a burden on my family. I am afraid of doing more harm in the future.”

Here is another example from someone who is writing on his blog;

“I have no family and no friends, very little food, no viable job and very poor future prospects. I’m totally useless”

If you are a friend, a family member or a therapist, the knee-jerk reaction to the above statements would be to counter them with: “Oh come on, you know that you’re not stupid.” Or “Just look at the positive side of things…You have come this far so don’t give up now! You’re better than that!”

Our tendency, because of our cultural bias would be to quickly problem-solve and to make the individual stronger and more independent. We would miss the signs and “normalize” the individual.

However, there is a great deal of meaning behind those words when the person is already in a dark mood and we need to consider the messages that he or she is conveying:

  • The future looks threatening
  • He or she is predicting disaster
  • He or she is isolating for self-protection
  • The focus is on the negative, bad and useless self
  • Others are seen as agreeing with this negative perception of “self”
  • There is anxiety (fear) about future social interactions

There is a great deal of information that we or other individuals don’t wish to hear and it goes against the flow, the current of our cultural, conformist ways of thinking and responding. This is our challenge–to breach the barriers and connect with the individual on his or her terms.

People reach out in various ways of which we need to take advantage.

Social media has become useful for identifying potentially suicidal individuals and hot-line workers use the linguistic clues.

In the study, “Grief-Stricken in a crowd; The Language of Bereavement and Distress in Social Media” from the School of Information and Computer Sciences UCLA, the writers in severe emotional distress used self-references that indicated a degree of social isolation and not reaching out for support from others.

People who have survived suicide tell us that they are glad to be alive and most of them never attempt it again. People who have reached out in time inform us that  having one person really listen to them was the  key to their survival and recovery.  Can we ask ourselves the following questions?

Do we need to go through a transforming paradigm shift in beliefs in order to reflect back to a distressed person that the future is not static, that things change?

Can we listen attentively and non judgmentally to extremely negative expressions of feelings and thoughts?

Are we able to remain balanced emotionally and not jump into problem solving when a distressed person contacts us?


Depressed man photo available from Shutterstock

Bias and Denial in Psychology: Missing the Signs of Suicide

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2015). Bias and Denial in Psychology: Missing the Signs of Suicide. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 9, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Aug 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 9 Aug 2015
Published on All rights reserved.