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Source: Massey University


Dr Louise Edwards graduated at the Manawatū graduation.


The New Zealand youth suicide rate is one of the highest amoungst developed countries but according to evidence in new Massey University doctoral research, it is the perception of being a burden on society that could be a leading contributor to these rising rates.

Dr Louise Edwards, who recently graduated with a Doctor of Clinical Psychology, focused her research on what might cause a young person to move from non-suicidal self-harm to taking their own life.

Non-suicidal self-injury can be described as the direct self-inflicted damage to the body in the absence of any intention to die and without accounting for tattoos or piercings.

Dr Edwards found evidence to suggest levels of perceived burdensomeness increase as individuals move from non-suicidal self-harm behaviours to suicidal behaviours.

“If perceived burdensomeness acts as a moderator, and if it starts increasing so that the person moves from non-suicidal behaviours towards the suicide attempts – that’s obviously what we want to stop,” says Dr Edwards.

“Non-suicidal self-injury is a big problem itself, however essentially what I was trying to do in my research was to contribute to suicide prevention – one of the areas I am very passionate about.”

Dr Edwards say her research was motivated by her personal experiences and her background having previously studied biochemistry and genetics. This led her to work with New Zealand War Veterans where she learnt about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. At the time she was also volunteering for Youth Line and connecting with individuals to discuss their mental health.

“After my Masters [in genetics] I was thinking about what to do for a PhD and I had been working with all these people and reading about these psychological disorders. I realised that I could do this for a job, so that’s when I started training to be a clinical psychologist and did my doctorate in suicide and self-harm.”

She says alongside working with people who had made suicide attempts and engaged in non-suicidal self-injury, she has also had her own personal experience. A family friend ended his life, which sparked her motivation to carry out her research.

She says she focused on perceived burdensomeness – the perception of being a burden on family, friends, partners or on society– as there was a lack of knowledge about whether this could increase the motivation to move from non-suicidal self-injury to suicide attempts, and ultimately death by suicide.

Her research was conducted with candidates volunteering to fill out an anonymous survey. Participants were then split them into four groups; those who had not engaged in any self-injury, those who had only engaged in non-suicidal self-injury, those who had engaged in self injury and suicide attempts and those who had only attempted suicide attempts.

During interviews with the third group (those who had both engaged in self injury and suicide attempts) participants discussed guilt, shame, depression, anxiety and avoidance of emotion.

“It brought to light a lot of feelings of being able to actually talk with real people about what they had been through,” she says.

“The clinical implications I’ve suggested in my findings are that we should know how to assess for and measure perceived burdensomeness when we’re working with at-risk young people – particularly those who are engaging in non-suicidal injury and suicide attempts.

“I also found a link to guilt and shame, two other things we need to look at when we’re assessing and then treating, and ensuring that they are not increasing.”

Dr Edwards says one of the most rewarding conclusions she found was when people are able to help others, their burdensomeness declines.

“If we want to try to reduce burdensomeness because of the link to suicide attempts, one thing we can do is to find ways for those who are vulnerable to be helping others.”

Dr Edwards graduated at the Manawatū graduation on May 5 and is currently working with young people struggling with mental health. She wants to continue her research in the future in this area.

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