Cultivating strength: Psychological well-being after nonfatal suicide attempts


A study of three separate nationally representative samples of nearly 9,000 U.S. military veterans found psychological well-being – defined in terms of having a high sense of purpose, social connectedness, and happiness – to be significantly diminished among veteran suicide attempt survivors relative to nonattempters, even decades after their last attempt.1

Bradley Brown, graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of South Florida, Tampa Bradley Brown

Mr. Bradley Brown

Despite the trend toward diminished well-being, many veterans who survived a suicide attempt reported average to optimal levels of well-being. Specifically, 52%-60% of veterans reporting a prior suicide attempt also reported experiencing as much purpose, social connection, and happiness as veterans without a suicide attempt history. Remarkably, a small subset (2-7%) of veteran attempt survivors even reported higher levels of well-being than veterans without a suicide attempt history.

Thus, while a prior suicide attempt was associated with reduced well-being on average, many veterans who survived a suicide attempt can and do go on to live enriching lives.

These data are notable because, in 2021, approximately 1.4 million U.S. adults made a nonfatal suicide attempt. Historically, suicide research has understandably emphasized the study of risk factors that increase the likelihood that someone dies by suicide. Given that a prior suicide attempt is among the top risk factors for suicide, virtually all research on suicide attempt survivors has focused on their elevated risk for future suicidality. Yet, 9 out of 10 people who have made a nonfatal suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide. It is thus critical to investigate the quality of life of the millions of suicide attempt survivors.

To date, we know little about a question keenly important to suicide attempt survivors and their loved ones: What is the possibility of rebuilding a meaningful, high-quality life after a suicide attempt?

In addition to reporting on the prevalence of high levels of psychological well-being after a nonfatal suicide attempt, it is pivotal to investigate factors that may help facilitate this outcome. To that end, we identified personal characteristics associated with high levels of well-being. Notably, it was malleable psychological strengths such as optimism and a curious mindset, more than the mere absence of symptoms, that were linked to higher levels of well-being among veteran suicide attempt survivors.

Current suicide prevention interventions and treatments, which often focus on mitigating immediate suicide risk by treating symptoms, may be overlooking the importance of cultivating and building psychological strengths that may help promote greater well-being and enriched lives. Moreover, treatments that emphasize such strengths might be particularly fruitful in mitigating suicide risk in veterans, as veterans may be more receptive to prevention and treatment initiatives that embrace the cultivation and bolstering of strengths that are inherent in military culture and values, such as resilience and perseverance in the face of life challenges.2

One notable caveat to this study is that the data were cross-sectional, meaning they were collected at a single time point. As such, the authors cannot conclude that factors such as curiosity necessarily caused higher levels of well-being in veterans, as opposed to well-being causing higher levels of curiosity.

Similarly, while one can infer that psychological well-being was near-absent at the time of a suicide attempt, well-being of attempt survivors was not assessed before their attempt. Longitudinal studies that follow attempt survivors over time are needed to understand how well-being changes over time for suicide attempt survivors and the causal chain in what predicts that change.

Nevertheless, the results of this large, multicohort study serve as an important first step toward a more comprehensive view of prognosis after a suicide attempt. Just as the process that leads to a suicide attempt is complex, so too is the process of recovery after an attempt. While this study provides sound estimates of well-being outcomes and some possible candidates that might facilitate these outcomes, a critical next step for future research is to replicate and extend these findings. To do so, it is pivotal to extend the assessment scope beyond symptom-based measures and include measures of well-being.

Additionally, the investment in resources into longer-term examinations following suicide attempts is essential to understand different pathways toward achieving greater well-being. Providing hope is vital and potentially lifesaving, as one of the most common experiences reported before a suicide attempt is an unremitting sense of hopelessness. Continued research on well-being has the potential to impart a more balanced, nuanced prognosis after a suicide attempt that challenges perceptions of an invariably bleak prospect of recovery after suicidality.

Collectively, these results highlight the importance of broadening the scope of how the mental health field views and treats psychiatric difficulties to include a greater focus on recovery-based outcomes and personal strengths that help facilitate recovery from adverse life experiences such as suicide attempts.

People desire lives that they enjoy and find meaningful, and having a history of suicide attempts does not preclude the prospect of such a life. It is time that suicide research reflects the vast landscape of potential outcomes after a suicide attempt that goes beyond the prediction of future suicide risk.

Mr. Brown is a doctoral student of clinical psychology at the University of South Florida, Tampa. Dr. Rottenberg is director of the Mood and Emotion Lab and area director of the department of clinical psychology, University of South Florida.


1. Brown BA et al. Psychological well-being in US veterans with non-fatal suicide attempts: A multi-cohort population-based study. J Affect Disord. 2022 Oct 1;314:34-43. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2022.07.003.

2. Bryan CJ et al. Understanding and preventing military suicide. Arch Suicide Res. 2012;16(2):95-110. doi: 10.1080/13811118.2012.667321.

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