Meet our Study Advisor, Suicide Scholar Dr. Thomas Joiner

Dr. Thomas Joiner is a leading national expert on suicide. He is also a chaired professor at Florida State University. He has written several books and hundreds of scientific articles on suicide, and he is a key advisor to the CSI:OPIOIDs study. He also has developed an important theory that helps us begin to think about why people take their lives. Our principal investigator, Dr. Stefan Kertesz, recently spoke with Dr. Thomas Joiner. Read more below.

Q: Dr. Joiner, can you tell us where you grew up and why you became a psychologist?

A: I was born and raised in Atlanta. I was initially drawn to philosophy but grew frustrated with the abundance of questions and the lack of answers. I noticed the psychologists were asking the same kinds of questions and then empirically arbitrating them. I thought that was very appealing. As for why a clinical psychologist, I just thought and still think that psychopathology is inherently fascinating. It is also a major source of human suffering and so trying to contribute to the reduction of suffering is also appealing to me.

Q: What has led you to put your effort into suicide prevention?

A: Initially it was the intellectual interest in philosophical questions having to do with existence, the lack of it, meaning, and the lack of it as well. Then, it became deeply personal and urgent when my dad took his own life when I was in graduate school.

Q: Our team sought for advice when we were just getting started. Why did you decide to advise the CSI:OPIOIDs project?

A: I’m interested in virtually any effort that has suicide prevention potential as this effort plainly does.

Q: There’s a theory about why people sometimes take their own lives. It’s credited to you. In simple terms, the theory says that people are more likely die by suicide when a few different things happen together. Two of those things have to do with how they feel in relationship to others. One has to do with feeling alone, and the other with felling like a burden. Can you tell us more about what those mean?

A: I believe the two main pillars of human nature are autonomy/agency and inter-dependence/connection. These also account for things like meaning. If those are undermined–as they are when people feel that they do not belong and that they burden others–reasons for living, meaning, and purpose are reduced.

Q: People talk about a theories in different ways. Sometimes they mean “it’s proven reality” like Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity”. Sometimes they mean, “this is an idea we are still developing and trying to document”. Which kind of theory is this?

A: I’m with the philosopher of science Karl Popper that there generally is no “proven” category. The only categories are “false” and “not false…yet”.  But a problem with Popper’s philosophy, one that he recognized, is that falsifications can be spurious, and so the judgment is difficult. As for my theory, I would use terms like “useful, including clinically “and “explanatory, at least partially.” There is a considerable empirical basis behind it, though it is unsurprisingly imperfect.

Q: Our study looks at a difficult event that happens in US health care where a person with pain loses access to pain medication. Some people do wind up taking their own lives and others don’t. What do you think are important questions for us to ask as we go forward?

A: I think an important point is that people can adapt to all sorts of things if they’re just given time and support. Exploring ways to disseminate that view seems like a potentially significant contribution to me.

Q: Many of us who work with the study know people who have lost someone to suicide, and we don’t always know what to say when we aren’t wearing our research hats. How can we be helpful to families and friends who have lost someone?

A: People can lose sight of the fact that the word “death” is of course an important part of the term “death by suicide.” It is a death, like a cardiac death or a car accident, and people should be guided in their reactions by remembering that.

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