The Dehumanization of Suicide Attempt Survivors by Crisis Line Responders and Laypeople

2021, Innovations in Research

Mental health care providers and laypeople are prone to see suicide attempt survivors as less than fully human. While we often think of dehumanization in relation to extreme historical violence like war and genocide, there are subtle ways to reduce the degree to which a person is seen as human. Primary emotions are often thought to be shared with animals. Secondary emotions are often thought to be uniquely human. One form of dehumanization involves considering the target group less human by exaggerating their experience of primary emotions and denying their experience of secondary emotions.

Canadian crisis line responders and SFU undergraduate students rated the degree to which suicide attempt survivors experience primary and secondary emotions. We found that both crisis responders and undergraduate students had a strong tendency to attribute more primary emotions compared to secondary emotions to suicide attempt survivors. This shows that crisis responders and laypeople dehumanized suicide attempt survivors by associating them with fewer uniquely human emotions compared to emotions shared with animals.

The findings suggest that suicide attempt survivors are dehumanized at a subtle, unconscious level by laypeople and mental health service providers. Dehumanization is not just a phenomenon from the ancient past. The dehumanization of suicide attempt survivors can be subtle but nevertheless influential. Previous research has provided strong evidence that even subtle dehumanization is associated with prejudicial attitudes and discrimination. Suicide attempt survivors who are dehumanized may have decreased access to resources and positive social interactions that are fundamental to well-being. This research may have implications in terms of raising awareness of dehumanization in the mental health system and improving the experiences of people who have survived a suicide attempt.

Spencer Chen

Undergraduate Student, Department of Psychology

Psychology, dehumanization, mental health, suicide


Spencer Chen

Spencer Chen (she/her/hers) is a psychology honours student in her last year of studies. She is completing her honours thesis at the Intergroup Relations and Social Justice Lab under the supervision of Dr. Stephen Wright. She is interested in social and clinical psychology. She hopes to eventually become a clinical psychologist and contribute towards eliminating suicide through research and clinical practice. She also cares deeply about social justice and hopes to improve the mental health care system and reduce the stigma of mental illness.

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