Mental Health

Volunteering After Enduring Natural Disasters Helps Lower Community Suicide Rate

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Natural disasters are frequently associated with increases in risk factors for suicide, yet research indicates that suicide rates tend to stay the same or decrease in the wake of disasters (e.g., Krug et al., 1999). 

A study published in a recent issue of Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention presented research sought to shed light on this counterintuitive phenomenon by testing hypotheses derived from Joiner’s (2005) interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior, which proposes that the desire to die by suicide is the result of feeling like one does not belong and feeling like one is a burden on others.

During natural disasters, community members often pull together in volunteering efforts, and it was predicted that such behaviors would boost feelings of belonging and reduce feelings that one is a burden.  The study tested these predictions in a sample of 210 undergraduate students in Fargo, North Dakota, following the 2009 Red River Flood. Results showed that, consistent with prediction, greater amounts of time spent volunteering in flood efforts were associated with increased feelings of belongingness and decreased feelings of burdensomeness.

The findings in the current study appear consistent with the notion that communities pulling together during a natural disaster can reduce interpersonal risk factors associated with the desire for suicide.