The powerpoint used for the October 10, 2014 Conference on

Asian Immigrants with a History
of Repeated Suicide Attempts:
Risk and Protective Factors
Irene Chung, LCSW, PhD
Associate Professor, Silberman School of Social Work at
Hunter College
Literature Review
• Individuals who have a history of two or more suicide
attempts are at high risk of death by suicide (Beautrais, 2004;
Gibb, Beautrais, & Fergusson, 2005; Chandrasekaran, R. &
Gnanaselane, J. (2008).
• These individuals’ cognitive, affective and behavioral schemas
associated with suicidal behaviors become more easily
accessible in memory after repetition of the behavior (Beck
• These individuals tend to develop a higher physical pain
tolerance, less of a fear of suicide, and an affinity for
emotional relief through suicidal behavior (Joiner, 2005;
Orbach, et al., 1997; Van Orden, et al., 2008).
Literature Review
• These individuals are more likely to suffer from a pervasive
sense of hopelessness and an overall low level of functioning
due to psychiatric and personality disorders, substance abuse,
socioeconomic stressors such as social isolation,
unemployment, interpersonal conflicts, and a history of
childhood sexual and physical abuse (Cedereke, M. &
Ojehagen, A, 2005; Chandrasekaran & Gnanaselane, 2008;
Forman, et al., 2006; Scoliers, et al., 2009; Wang & Mortensen,
Purpose of Study
• Fill the gap in studies on suicidality among Asian Americans,
specifically Asian immigrants.
• Capture the clinical and psychosocial profiles of repeated
suicide attempters among Asian immigrants in a sociocultural
• Identify suicide risk and protective factors for this sample
population that can be considered in assessment, treatment
and suicide prevention.
Study is funded by the New York State Office of Mental Health Suicide
Prevention Initiatives and sponsored by the Office of Behavioral Health, New
York City Dept. of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Principal Investigator: Irene Chung, LCSW, PhD
Co-PI: Marianne Badaracco, MD, Charles Barron, MD, Eric Caine, MD
Mixed method design:
2011: Retroactive Chart Review of Asian inpatient
immigrants, aged 18 and over.
2012 – 2013: Semi-structured interviews with Asian
immigrant patients (inpatient and outpatient units), aged 18
and over, their family members and mental health providers.
o Bellevue Hospital Center
o Elmhurst Hospital Center
Retroactive Chart Review Design
• Randomly selected two-year period (2009 - 2010).
• Asian immigrants were defined as those who migrated from
countries in East Asia, South Asia, and South East Asia.
• A total of 44 patients who had a history of two or more suicide
attempts were selected from the combined sample of 608 Asian
patient charts in the two hospitals.
• A chart review instrument was used to gather preliminary data on
these identified patients’ demographics, psychopathology,
treatment history, psychosocial stressors and history of suicidal
• For comparative analysis, another group (n = 29) from the same
sample of Asian immigrant patients (n = 608) with no lifetime history
of suicide attempts but were comparable in age, gender, Asian
ethnicity, and psychiatric diagnosis of the repeated suicide
attempters was selected.
Semi-Structured Interviews
• A total of 12 Asian immigrant patients were recruited at the
inpatient and outpatient units. With their permission, their
mental health providers (n = 12) and family members (n=6)
were also interviewed.
• Each patient was interviewed for about 75 minutes in their
native language. Their family members and providers were
interviewed for 45 and 30 minutes respectively.
• An interview guide was used to expand on the data gathered
from the chart reviews, specifically the depth and complexities
of the participants’ distress in a sociocultural and immigrantspecific context, including the nature of familial support
toward the participants’ recovery.
• Interviews were audiotaped, transcribed and translated for
thematic analysis.
Demographics of Participants
• Countries of origin: China (over 70%), Korea, the
Philippines, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
• Low socioeconomic background.
• Higher percentage of females:
56% in Chart Review sample; 75% in Interview sample
• Higher percentage of young adults in their 20s and 30s:
52% in Chart Review sample; 50% in Interview sample
• Living alone or in shelters:
25% in Chart Review sample and 33% in Interview sample
• Single, divorced or separated:
75% in Chart Review Sample and 83% in Interview sample
• Varied immigration status and length of time in the U.S.
High prevalence of suicide attempters
• 24% (n = 608) of the Chart Review Sample had made one or
more suicide attempts. Further screening showed 7.2 % (n =
608) were repeated suicide attempters.
• The number of reported suicide attempts for each patient in
chart review sample ranged from 2 – 5 (mean: 2.8), and 2 – 4
in interview sample (mean: 2.7).
A history of a suicide attempt is a lifetime risk factor
• Varied lapses of time between suicide attempts: within the
same day, weeks, months, 5 years, 10 years and even 30 years.
• Half of the interview sample acknowledged frequent suicidal
ideations when they had to cope with stress:
“When I am frustrated and can’t see a way out, I am not
afraid of dying.”
“Whenever I don’t have any money, I want to die.”
Comparative Analysis
Between the sample of repeated suicide attempters and
patients with no history of suicide attempts, there were no
statistical significance in:
• History of mental illness and treatment (diagnoses, length of
mental illness, non-adherence to treatment)
• Co-morbid issues (impulsivity and personality disorder
diagnosis), a history of alcohol and substance abuse, family
history of suicide attempts)
• Life stressors (family conflicts, undocumented immigrant
status, health problems, and living alone or in shelters)
• Implications?
Table 2
Diminished Psychological Well-Being as a
Significant Suicide Risk Factor
Major themes from the interviews:
A pervasive sense of not feeling loved and accepted by
• “Even when I was young, I had some suicidal thoughts. I somehow
felt my mom did not really love me. Maybe because I was not
obedient; I was too oppositional. She would hit me for little things
that I did wrong. She would also put me outside in the cold for the
entire evening when I was only 11 or 12 years old. I was thinking
how could my mom be so heartless?”
• “It was a shameful event for my family when I got divorced. So I
decided to cut myself off from the family and raise my son on my
own. I didn’t want any help from anyone. But then I ended up
sending my son to live with my ex-husband in his home country. I
kept thinking: “does my son still know me and love me? And then my
father died and I did not have a chance to say good-bye. I felt like I
lost everyone I loved. That was why I did not want to live anymore.”
Diminished Psychological Well-Being as
a Significant Suicide Risk Factor
Identity as Mentally Ill Patients:
Self Blame
Characterized themselves as “a failure”, “useless”,
“disappointing”, and a “burden to others” in their life roles.
Self Stigma
“I have not wanted to live since I became ill. I don’t like myself. I
don’t think I am smart. My mind is not sharp. I am not normal…
In my next life, I want to be a real person: very disciplined, smart,
does a good job on the job.”
“I did not tell anyone about my illness. They would take
advantage of me or look down at me if they knew.”
Diminished Psychological Well-Being as
Significant Suicide Risk Factor
Pressure from family to improve their level of functioning:
“My family said how come I don't get better from my illness. If I
get better, I can marry a good man."
“My mom always complained when I do household chores and
cook. She doesn’t understand my situation, and that I am trying
my best. I feel very inferior in the family. When they talk to me,
it’s always about whether I’ve taken my medication. That’s all
they are concerned about.”
“My family said I should make some money before I return to
Poor coping and help-seeking behavior
as significant suicide risk factor
Difficulties reaching out to others in times of distress
Most of the participants in the interview sample (80%,
n = 12) were characterized by their family members or
mental health providers as “reticent and keeping their
worries to themselves”. Many of them (75%, n = 12)
made a similar statement that they felt “no one can
help” during times of distress.
“It would be nice if people will show that they care about me,
and I don’t have to be the one calling them when I need help.”
Poor coping and help-seeking behavior
as significant suicide risk factor
Difficulties with self-soothing and managing impulses in times of
“I guess I bottled up my emotions. Even now I am never too keen on
talking, especially about difficult subjects; it’s hard to do it. I guess I‘ll
have to make myself feel again; that was very scary for me to have to
deal with the pain before.”
“My life has been destroyed… Yes, my entire life has been destroyed…I
couldn’t think of any other way except suicide to reduce the pressures
in my life. And I heard voices urging me to kill myself.”
Varied methods of suicide attempt were used by the patients each
time, sustaining various degrees of injuries and lethal potentiality.
• Little planning in suicidal attempts.
• No patterns of increasing lethality between the various attempts.
Existential Issues as Suicide Protective
A glimmer of hope and optimism among 6 participants in the
interview sample who have shown improvement in their level of
functioning and treatment adherence:
A sense of competence in their life roles
“I don’t have a lot of expectations for my life right now, but I
realize that my younger brother may be dying (of cancer), and I
need to take care of him and my parents. I have very limited
income from the government, but I still give money to my
brother’s children.”
“My husband, he knows how to cook, but he wants me to do all
the cooking. I just do something simple. My son comes home for
dinner. I also clean and tidy the place every day so we can spend
some family time together after dinner.”
Existential Issues as Suicide Protective
A newfound sense of acceptance and care by others
“My husband is the one who is aware of my condition. He has
been very worried. He is a good man, and he treats me well. He
gives me emotional support, but not financially. You can never
have everything.”
“I think my pastor understands my feelings a little bit. He
promised to help me find a job. Also my daughter has been able
to earn some money in her home country these days so that I
can save some money little by little to find myself another place
and leave the homeless shelter.”
• Incomplete information in chart notes:
• Recruitment of interview participants;
• Discussion of sensitive issues with participants.
• Sample immigrant population was predominantly of low
socioeconomic background in an urban setting;
• Major Asian ethnic groups were not adequately represented;
• Small sample size of comparative and interview groups;
• Subjective interpretation inherent in data mining and
qualitative studies.
Similar risk factors identified among other population groups:
Mental illness, social isolation, unemployment, impulsivity and
poor coping mechanism, lack of support and acceptance from
family, and pervasive sense of hopelessness – played out in
immigrant-specific and Asian cultural context.
Other common risk factors not fully reflected in the study
Personality disorder, substance abuse, childhood sexual abuse.
Future studies:
Comparative studies with first-time attempters and other ethnic
groups; intervention studies with a focus on the psychological
well-being of participants.
• Challenges for clinicians:
Focus beyond the patients’ immediate unmet clinical and
concrete needs and develop treatment on the suicidality of the
Asian immigrant patients.
Explore issues of psychological pains that are the root causes of
suicidality, given the cultural taboo and shame on disclosing
negative feelings toward one’s family and mental illness.
Develop strength-based and culturally relevant approaches in
providing psychoeducation with family members?
• Other treatment modalities?

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