Help Access Hidden Memories: Poor Autobiographical Recall Flags Suicide Risk

Article excerpt

ROME -- Adolescents who can't recall specific autobiographical memories appear to be at a greater risk for suicidal behavior, and therapy aimed at improving this type of recall might help improve treatment outcomes for these youths.

Those unable to remember specific events from their past have a limited repertoire of proven problem-solving tactics to draw upon in the present, said Dr. Alan Apter at a meeting of the International Society of Adolescent Psychiatry.

"They are unable to retrieve these memories, which normally provide a larger store of experience to apply to current problems." This inability to solve problems leads to an increased sense of hopelessness about the present and the future, which in turn increases the risk of suicidal ideation and behavior, said Dr. Apter, professor of psychiatry at Tel Aviv University and chairman of the Feinberg Child Study Center, Petach Tikva, Israel.

The idea that suicidal behavior is linked to autobiographical memory retrieval deficit is not new. J.M. Williams of the University of Wales proposed such a connection in adults in 1996 (Mem. Cognit. 24[1]:116-25, 1996). But until Dr. Apter recently studied a group of suicidal and nonsuicidal adolescents, no one has ever tested the hypothesis in that age group.

Dr. Apter examined the autobiographical recall of 75 adolescents: 25 of them had been admitted to an adolescent psychiatric unit for attempted suicide, 25 had been admitted to the same unit for reasons other than a suicide attempt, and 25 were matched community controls. The subjects were aged 12-19 years.

In addition to autobiographical recall, the teens were assessed for suicide risk, feelings of hopelessness, childhood and adolescent life events, repression as a defense mechanism, and interpersonal problem-solving skills.

Autobiographical recall was tested by using word association. The teens were asked to respond to 10 different words with a specific personal memory, either recent or remote, containing times and places.

Problem-solving skills were assessed with the Means-Ends Problems Solving Test. …