The IMV Model of Suicide

The Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour (IMV; O'Connor, 2011)


The Integrated Motivational-Volitional Model of Suicidal Behaviour (IMV; O’Connor, 2011; O'Connor, Cleare, Eschle, Wetherall, Kirtley, 2016) attempts to synthesize, distil, and extend our knowledge and understanding of why people die by suicide, with a particular focus on the psychology of the suicidal mind. The model was developed from the recognition that suicide is characterized by a complex interplay of biology, psychology, environment, and culture (O’Connor, 2011), and that we need to move beyond psychiatric categories if we are to further understand the causes of suicidal malaise. Many predictive models have adopted too narrow a focus; this model aims to build upon and extend the growing empirical evidence base that has been accrued across the international research literature. It also highlights a pertinent challenge within the field of suicidology; the ability to predict with sensitivity and specificity not only who will develop suicidal thoughts (or not), but who will act on these thoughts and when.

Integrated Motivational–Volitional Model (IMV; O'Connor, 2011) 

In brief

In brief, the IMV is a tripartite model that proposes that suicidal behaviour results from a complex interplay of factors, the proximal predictor of which is one’s intention to engage in suicidal behaviour. Intention, in turn, is determined by feelings of entrapment where suicidal behaviour is seen as the salient solution to life circumstances. These feelings of being trapped are triggered by defeat/humiliation appraisals, which are often associated with chronic or acute stressors. The transitions from the defeat/humiliation stage to entrapment, from entrapment to suicidal ideation/intent, and from ideation/intent to suicidal behaviour are determined by stage-specific moderators (i.e., factors that facilitate/obstruct movement between stages). In addition, background factors (e.g., deprivation, vulnerabilities) and life events (e.g., relationship crisis), which comprise the pre-motivational phase (i.e., before the commencement of ideation formation), provide the broader biosocial context for suicide. In essence, the three parts of the model could be summarised as follows: (1) Background Factors (Pre-motivational phase; the context in which suicide may occur), (2) Development of Suicidal Thoughts (Motivational phase; how/why suicidal thinking emerges) and (3) Attempting Suicide (Volitional Phase; factors associated with acting upon one's thoughts of suicide).   

More details about the development of the model can be found in the 1st edition of the International Handbook of Suicide Prevention and in a 2011 editorial about the model in the journal Crisis.  For some more information on the development of the IMV, double click here and here for two brief YouTube videos.  An updated chapter describing the latest information about the IMV model can be found in the 2nd edition of the International Handbook of Suicide Prevention



Applying The Model                                                                                                                                                                  

One of the strengths of this theoretical framework is that it generates testable hypotheses, which in turn, if supported, point to opportunities for potential intervention. Different aspects of the model have already been tested, yielding a number of encouraging findings: 

For example, in one study conducted by our research group we investigated whether entrapment was a proximal predictor of repetition of suicidal behaviour over time. The short answer was yes. Whereas, suicidal ideation, past suicidal behaviour, depression, hopelessness, defeat and entrapment were each univariate predictors of suicide attempt over the subsequent 4 years, entrapment was the only modifiable predictor (alongside previous suicide attempts) in multivariate analyses. Although these findings are encouraging, it will be good to replicate these in a larger sample (O’Connor, Smyth, Ferguson, Ryan & Williams, 2013). Double click here for a brief video description of the study. The model also makes important predictions about the factors which are most important in distinguishing between those who think about suicide (but do not attempt suicide) and those who attempt suicide/die by suicide. Indeed, in a recent large-scale study we demonstrated that, as predicted by the IMV model, volitional moderators (included exposure to suicide, impulsivity, fearlessness about death) were the most important factors in differentiating between these two groups (
Dhingra, Boduszek & O'Connor, 2015).  A structural test of the model has also been published (Dhingra, Boduszek, & O'Connor, 2016).

We have also looked at different components of the motivational phase of the model. For example, across a range of studies we have shown that impaired positive future thinking is a key factor within the suicidal process (e.g., Hunter & O’Connor, 2003; O’Connor et al., 2000; O’Connor et al., 2004). Indeed, in a recent study of patients with a history of repeat self-harm, impaired positive future thinking was a better predictor of suicidal ideation 2-3 months following a self-harm episode than global hopelessness (O’Connor et al., 2008). We have also looked at goal regulation – another motivational moderator – and found that the way in which we respond to unachievable goals predicts repetition of self-harm/suicide (O’Connor, Ryan, O’Carroll, & Smyth, 2012O’Connor et al., 2009). 

Although the IMV model was developed with suicidal ideation and behaviour in mind, the central tenets of the model can also be applied to self-harm irrespective of levels of suicidal intent. By way of illustration, in a recent study of 5,604 adolescents, as predicted by the IMV, we found that motivational phase and pre-motivational phase personality variables did not distinguish between adolescents who seriously thought about self-harm but never acted on their thoughts (i.e., ideators-only) and those who actually engaged in self-harm (i.e., enactors), whereas the volitional phase variables did (O’Connor, Rasmussen, & Hawton, 2011). In health psychological terms, we would argue that the presence of volitional moderators makes self-harm more likely because they bridge the intention-behaviour gap. 

The IMV model has also recently been used to inform the development of interventions. Specifically, with colleagues, we have developed a volitional help sheet (VHS, see implementation-intentions in the volitional phase of the model) and investigated its utility in reducing suicidality and self-harm. The VHS is a brief intervention tool (to be used as an adjunct to usual care) which encourages participants to think about critical situations when they are tempted to self-harm and to consider alternative solutions.   The findings of the first exploratory study in Malaysia have been promising (Armitage, Abdul Rahim, Rowe & O'Connor, 2016, although conclusions limited by attrition & self-report outcomes) and a second large scale RCT has also yielded encouraging findings among those with a previous history of self-harm hospitalisation over 6 months (O'Connor, Ferguson, Scott, Smyth, McDaid, Park, Beautrais, & Armitage, 2017).  



The Way Forward 

The model is new, therefore it requires rigorous empirical examination. In the figure above, the dominant pathways are outlined and are directly testable. To this end, we, and other groups nationally and internationally, are currently testing different components of the model and we will report these findings in the years ahead. The systematic study of the mechanisms underpinning suicide is important not only to advance theory but it is also vital for the development of evidence-informed interventions. The latter will have a much greater chance of success if the potential mechanisms which underpin their effects are better understood. Their success will also be determined by recognising that a ‘one size fits all’ approach will not be successful and that theoretically-informed research will help unpack what works for whom, when and where.

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