Is there a link between intelligence and suicide?

IQ

Suicide risk factors

There are advantages to being smart. People who do well on IQ tests tend to be more successful in the classroom and the workplace. Although the reasons are not fully understood, they also tend to live longer, healthier lives, and are less likely to experience negative life events such as bankruptcy.

However, a survey of Mensa’s highly intelligent members (IQ over 132) found that they were more likely to suffer from a range of serious disorders. The biggest differences between the Mensa group and the general population were seen for mood disorders and anxiety disorders. It appears that highly intelligent people have a heightened tendency to ruminate and worry.

Example:

For example, a highly intelligent person may overanalyze a disapproving comment made by a boss, imagining negative outcomes that simply wouldn’t occur to someone less intelligent. That may trigger the body’s stress response, which may make the person even more anxious.

Important: The results of the Mensa study must be interpreted cautiously because they are correlational. There isn’t clear evidence that high intelligence definitely causes mood/anxiety disorders alone, there may be many other factors involved.

‘The Suicide Project’ has an article from the Times Online regarding research that seems to prove that there is a correlation between intelligence and suicide: ‘Voracek also cites something called the Terman Genetic Study of Genius. This was a study of the entire life cycles of 1,528 gifted Californian children born in 1920-21. One of many fascinating facts revealed by the Terman study was that the suicide rate among these super-bright individuals was 33 per 100,000 person-years ” about three times the average rate for the US (which is, anyway, fairly high on a global ranking).

So why should there be such an apparently strong connection between intelligence and suicide? Voracek points to a 1981 study by Denys deCatanzaro, a Canadian evolutionary psychologist. In his research, deCatanzaro posited the idea that for suicide to take place, a certain threshold of self-awareness, of intelligence, must be crossed.’

An example: I saw a client who was highly intelligent and hard-working. They attained the highest grades at school (A* in all subjects). This individual then but was passed over for a prize for top student, which went to someone else, despite them having the best results.

They had a nervous breakdown and were unable to go to university for 3 years.  Eventually, they went to university but after a year, their shocked parents found out that they had attended any lectures and stayed in their room the whole time. This poor person then came down with an immunity disorder and was bed-ridden for several years and in severe pain before ending up in a psych ward. Unfortunately, this sad story ended in suicide. The family thinks that the problems stemmed from bullying at school and possibly also at university because they were very quiet and shy.

The reality of how hard life can be

It is also very difficult for someone extremely intelligent to be happy when they are more likely than average people to see life for what it is. Most of us are happy idiots who are more optimistic than life warrants but the intelligent maybe see life as pointless? I don’t really know the answer but extreme intelligence can certainly be a burden.

Often, extremely bright students are bullied and end up defeated and disillusioned. It can take years to build up self-confidence and hold down a job. Bouts of depression are common as well as high avoidance of the stress of life. For many young people, hiding in their rooms engaging in online gaming is a far easier and less stressful option. So many intelligent people don’t reach their potential and find life hard. They tend to overthink everything instead of embracing life as it is.

An inability to emotionally regulate

Individuals who struggle to manage their intense negative emotions are also at higher risk of committing suicide although this risk does decrease over time. A high level of emotional intelligence acts as a protective factor against the risk of suicide. Someone with high emotional intelligence is more likely to be self-aware, self-reflective and would be more likely to speak to others about their issues. They are also more able to enjoy positive relationships with others and social support is often seen as a positive in helping people stay calm and emotionally strong. Emotional intelligence and the skills needed to improve this need to be included in suicide prevention programmes.

Low intelligence linked to suicide risk later in life

Research suggests that low intelligence can also be an indicator of higher risk. People with low scores on intelligence tests in adolescence run a higher risk of suicide and suicide attempt later in life. That is according to a study from Karolinska Institutet in Sweden that followed almost 50,000 Swedish men from the 1970s until recently. The study is published in the journal Psychological Medicine.

The researchers found that people with the lowest measured intelligence were as much as six times more likely to attempt or die from suicide compared to those with the highest intelligence. Similarly, men with the least emotional control had an almost seven-fold higher risk of suicidal behavior than men in the highest category. For men with low IQ, the strong association remained over time whereas men with low emotional control in their adolescence seemed less vulnerable to suicide as they aged.

The mechanisms are not fully known, but previous findings show that people with lower intelligence typically face more socioeconomic adversity later in life.

Conclusion/Thoughts

More research needs to be completed but it would seem that high intelligence, low intelligence, and an inability to manage intense emotions all increase the risk of suicide. High intelligence possibly increases the risk in young people whereas low intelligence increases the risk of suicide later in life (possibly after 38 years of age). There will always be exceptions to the rule and new information may come to light to dispute this but it’s clear that the more we understand about the risks of suicide, the better prepared we will be.
References:
  • https://www.sciencedaily.com/
  • https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bad-news-for-the-highly-intelligent/
  • https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07481180600614591?journalCode=udst20
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6284019/
  • https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/psychological-medicine/article/how-intelligence-and-emotional-control-are-related-to-suicidal-behavior-across-the-life-course-a-registerbased-study-with-38year-followup/C39F3B1C4C96D92C64FCF200C6DB8745
Mandy Kloppers
Author: Mandy Kloppers

Mandy is a qualified therapist who treats depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, trauma, and many other types of mental health issues. She provides online therapy around the world for those needing support and also provides relationship counselling.

Mandy Kloppers

Mandy is a qualified therapist who treats depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, trauma, and many other types of mental health issues. She provides online therapy around the world for those needing support and also provides relationship counselling.

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