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How do people move from contemplating to attempting suicide: Investigating the cognitive mechanisms of loss of control and limited awareness of goals

Project Description

Suicide is a leading cause of death and it remains unclear how individuals transition from contemplating suicide (ideators) to attempting suicide (attempters). The knowledge gap on the psychological mechanisms which may underlie this transition needs to be addressed in order to provide new treatment targets and develop interventions for individuals who attempt suicide.

This mixed-methods project aims to address this knowledge gap by testing psychological mechanisms underlying the transition from suicidal ideation to attempts using Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) as a theoretical framework. It will test the following hypotheses: 1. Individuals attempt suicide as a means of regaining control of their experiences when they are unable to control important aspects of their lives (goals). 2. Individuals who attempt suicide are less aware than ideators of how these goals would be affected by suicide. The objectives of this project are to develop and evaluate a psychological tool for assessing the mechanisms of control and awareness in a suicidal population, and to investigate differences between ideators and attempters using this tool.

Participants will be recruited from NHS and other community services. Study 1 will use cognitive interviews to investigate attempters’ and ideators’ experiences of control over their important life goals and their awareness of how their death by suicide would impact on their goals. This methodology will enable an item pool of questions to be generated. Study 2 will use the item pool to develop and evaluate a new psychological tool for assessing suicidal individuals’ ability to achieve their goals and their awareness of how their goals would be negatively impacted on by suicide. Study 3 will use the newly developed psychological tool to compare the psychological mechanisms of control and awareness between ideators and attempters.

Each supervisor has expertise on distinct aspects of the project and will provide training in these areas. Dr Pratt has expertise in suicide prevention and will provide training on suicide risk assessments; Dr Tai has expertise in using qualitative methods to test theoretical principles, and will provide training on the cognitive interviews and testing the predictions of the cognitive model; Dr Mansell has expertise in quantitative approaches to mental health research and will provide training on evaluating the reliability and validity of the psychological tool, and on statistical analyses. External training will be provided on developing the psychological tool from data gathered in qualitative interviews.

Entry Requirements:
Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a First or Upper Second Class Bachelor’s degree (or its international equivalent). A relevant master’s degree, with Merit and a minimum average grade of 60% in both the taught course units and your dissertation (or international equivalent of 60%). Candidates with a particular interest in Suicide Prevention and Clinical Psychology are encouraged to apply.

For international students we also offer a unique 4 year PhD programme that gives you the opportunity to undertake an accredited Teaching Certificate whilst carrying out an independent research project across a range of biological, medical and health sciences. For more information please visit

Funding Notes

Applications are invited from self-funded students. This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).

As an equal opportunities institution we welcome applicants from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and transgender status. All appointments are made on merit.


1. Carey, T. A., Mansell, W., & Tai, S. J. (2014). A biopsychosocial model based on negative feedback and control. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 94. DOI:

2. Schauman, O., & Mansell, W. (2012). Processes underlying ambivalence in help‐seeking: The loss of valued control model. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 19(2), 107-124. DOI:

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