A network perspective on suicidal behavior: Understanding suicidality as a complex system

Derek de Beurs*, Claudi Bockting, Ad Kerkhof, Floortje Scheepers, Rory O’Connor, Brenda Penninx, Ingrid van de Leemput

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

25 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Suicidal behavior is the result of complex interactions between many different factors that change over time. A network perspective may improve our understanding of these complex dynamics. Within the network perspective, psychopathology is considered to be a consequence of symptoms that directly interact with one another in a network structure. To view suicidal behavior as the result of such a complex system is a good starting point to facilitate moving away from traditional linear thinking. Objective: To review the existing paradigms and theories and their application to suicidal behavior. Methods: In the first part of this paper, we introduce the relevant concepts within network analysis such as network density and centrality. Where possible, we refer to studies that have applied these concepts within the field of suicide prevention. In the second part, we move one step further, by understanding the network perspective as an initial step toward complex system theory. The latter is a branch of science that models interacting variables in order to understand the dynamics of complex systems, such as tipping points and hysteresis. Results: Few studies have applied network analysis to study suicidal behavior. The studies that do highlight the complexity of suicidality. Complexity science offers potential useful concepts such as alternative stable states and resilience to study psychopathology and suicidal behavior, as demonstrated within the field of depression. To date, one innovative study has applied concepts from complexity science to better understand suicidal behavior. Complexity science and its application to human behavior are in its infancy, and it requires more collaboration between complexity scientists and behavioral scientists. Conclusions: Clinicians and scientists are increasingly conceptualizing suicidal behavior as the result of the complex interaction between many different biological, social, and psychological risk and protective factors. Novel statistical techniques such as network analysis can help the field to better understand this complexity. The application of concepts from complexity science to the field of psychopathology and suicide research offers exciting and promising possibilities for our understanding and prevention of suicide.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)115-126
Number of pages12
JournalSuicide and Life-Threatening Behavior
Issue number1
Early online date24 Feb 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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