Was Shneidman Right? The Frustration of a Psychological
Was Shneidman Right?
The Frustration of a Psychological Need, Psychache and
Frdrick Dionne1,2,3, M.Ps., Ph.D. cand.
Correspondance: [email protected] 2University of Quebec at Trois-Rivieres 3F-X-Garneau college
Shneidman is a founder of
modern suicidology. By the end of
his career, he summarized the
kernel of his theory in a few words :
Suicide is caused by psychache
(Shneidman, 1993, p.147). This
means that psychache is for him the
variable most proximal to suicide.
psychological or mental suffering
defined as the pain of overwhelming
According to Shneidmans theory,
psychache is engendered when
important psychological needs
are frustrated. For example, these
include the need for comfort,
affiliation, humiliation, nurturance,
(Murray, 1938 ; Shneidman, 1980).
Among these needs, the need for
affiliation, derived from Henry
Murrays list, is certainly among
crucial needs in explaining suicide
(Shneidman, 1999), particularly in
Leenaars, 1989). Also, at the
empirical level, loneliness (resulting
in a lack of satisfying social needs)
has been identified as a risk factor
for suicidal behaviours (e.g., Joiner
& Rudd, 1996).
Several studies have supported
portions of Shneidmans theory
and/or the concept of psychache in
various populations (e.g., Bancroft,
Skrimshire & Simkin, 1976; Holden &
DeLisle, 2006; Holden & Kroner,
2003; Holden, Kerr, Mendonca &
Velamoor, 1998; Holden & McLeod,
2000; Holden, Mehta, Cunningham
& Mcleod, 2001; Johns & Holden,
1997; Leenaars, 1988; Mills, Green
& Reddon, 2005). However, few
studies have tested directly
Shneidmans theory by measuring
the frustration of psychological
Flaumenbaum and Holden (2007)
recently measured the frustration of
psychological needs and produced
mixed results, and Berlim et al.
theory but without measuring
psychache per se.
The purpose of the
study was to determine the
loneliness and suicidal
behaviour. If psychache
has a mediational role, this
Shneidmans theory on
Participants were university students met in their classrooms setting in
September 2003. The sample consisted of 615 young adult university
undergraduates of French-Canadian origin. These were 18 to 30 years of age
(mean of 21.81 years old and standard deviation of 2.38) and comprised 422 women
(68.6%) and 193 men (31.4%). They were asked by an evaluator to complete a
series of questionnaires for a mental health study. The participants were treated in
accordance with the ethical standards.
Psychache Scale (Holden et al., 2001): The Psychache Scale is a 13-item
single-factor self-report instrument that serves to measure level of intolerable
psychological suffering in an individual, as defined by Shneidman (1993). The items
are rated on a 5-point Likert scale from 1 (never or strongly disagree) to 5 (always or
UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau & Cutrona, 1980): The UCLA
Loneliness Scale is a 20-item scale that measures feelings of solitude, disconnection,
and lack of closeness. The scale has adequate psychometrics properties and has
been extensively validated.
Questions regarding suicidal behaviours: The following yes/no questions
drawn from the Quebec Health Survey (Gouvernement du Qubec, 1993) were used
to screen for presence or absence of suicidal behaviours in the past 12 months :
(Q1) In the past 12 months, have you ever seriously thought about attempting
suicide? (Q2) In the past 12 months, have you ever planned of attempted suicide?
(Q3) In the past 12 months, how often have you attempted suicide? Participants
were distributed into two groups : The suicidal group and the non-suicidal group.
To fall into the suicidal group, a participant had to respond affirmatively to questions
Q1, Q2 or Q3?
Among de 615 participants, 42 individuals (6.8% of the overall sample)
reported having had at least serious suicidal thoughts in the past 12 months. Of
these, 36 were women (8.5% of all the women) and 6 were men (3.1%) of all the
First, we wished first to verify whether the two groups could be distinguished
from one another through psychache or loneliness. The relevant data on these two
variables are presented in Table I where we can find descriptive statistics on the
overall sample, the suicidal group and the non-suicidal groups considered separately.
(n = 573)
(n = 42)
The results confirmed Shneidmans
path to suicidal behaviours. In our
sample, psychache was a mediator
between loneliness and suicidal
behaviours. Effectively, the three
conditions held concordant using
partials correlations. The frustration
of the affiliation need (or loneliness)
affected significantly psychache.
Psychache and suicidal behaviours
were associated when loneliness was
in the equation. When psychache
was controlled for, the link between
loneliness and suicidal behaviours
was reduce to non-significance. This
finding is meaningful because it offers
empirical data on Shneidmans
understanding of variables and risk
behaviours, particularly in young
adults university students.
However, they were some limits that
reduced the generalization of the
research. Giving our experimental
design, it would be necessary to
conduct a longitudinal study to test
the model and conclude in a causeand-effect relationship. Additionally,
other measures might be considered
like depression and hopelessness
to find variables that covariate with
loneliness and psychache. Also,
utilizing a sample drawn from a
general population reduces the
score range and limits the statistical
potential of the measure scales. The
results are encouraging, but it will be
essential to conduct research on
clinical populations (e.g., mooddisordered
attempters) in order to gain a finer
appreciation of Shneidmans theory
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Table 1. Means and standard deviations for suicidal group and non-suicidal group
* p < .001
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Second, three conditions must hold to confirm the hypothesis (Baron & Kenny,
1986). Partial correlations were used.
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1) Variations of the frustration of the affiliation need (or loneliness) significantly
account for variation in the mediator (psychache) (r = .54; r2 = .29; p < .001).
Holden, R.R., Kerr, P.S., Mendonca, J.D., & Velamoor, V.R. (1998). Are some
motives more linked to suicide proneness than others? Journal of Clinical
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2) Variations in the mediator (psychache) significantly account for variations in the
dependant variable (suicidal behaviours) (r = .40; r2 = .16; p < .001).
Holden, R.R., & Kroner, D.G. (2003). Differentiating suicidal motivations and
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3) When the mediators path is control for (psychache), a previously significant
relation between the independent variable (loneliness) and the dependant variable
(suicidal behaviours) is no longer significant. (r = -.25; p = ns).
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Psychology, 54, 51-61.
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suicide questionnaire (RASQ) in a nonclinical adult population. Personality
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3 (r = -.25; p = ns).
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Figure 1. Mediational model. Perfect mediation of psychache between loneliness and suicidal behaviours.
Shneidman, E.S. (1999). Le temprament suicidaire : Risques, souffrances et
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