For a full list of publications, please go here

Ecology of suicide and emotional distress

We are conducting a series of projects to look at the ways in which the social and physical environment shape mental health.

Environmental predictors of suicide and distress: We conducted a project funded by the Richard Benjamin Trust to model patterns of emotional distress in Scotland. Dr Mairi Macleod and I worked in collaboration with NHS 24’s helpline Breathing Space to analyse frequencies of calls in relation to parameters such as the weather, employment rates, prescriptions of drugs used in mental health, and population density and structure. Our findings have informed Breathing Space’s practices and have been presented to the Mental Health team of the Scottish Government and the Directorate of Scotland’s NHS.

We have also recently completed a project with the Tay Road Bridge, analysing patterns of incidence of suicidal behaviour.

Gendered social ecology and suicide: I became interested in the effects of gender equality in the control of resources essential for reproduction (e.g. wealth in contemporary western societies, but food and security over our ancestral past) on reproductive strategies during my PhD research. More recently, we have been looking at the stressors experienced by men and women fulfilling breadwinner and caregiver roles, and how these influence mental health. Shanice Taylor, for example, found in her MSc research that a sex difference in suicide rates (based on reporting of deaths in archived local newspapers) reduced during a time period in Dundee’s history when working-class women were more likely than men to be the primary breadwinners (late 18th and early 19th centuries). Charlotte Elliott is currently working on psychological and behavioural masculinity and how this contributes to sex differences in suicide rates. Related to this, I have found strong relationships between the sex ratio of a population and the suicide rate (in prep). I am working with undergraduate students from Dundee and Strathclyde to begin to understand the proximate psychological mediators of this.

We are conducting a large meta-analysis of relationships between impulsivity and self-harm.

Suicide risk assessment: With collaborators from NHS Tayside and our Psychology of Mental Health MSc students, we have been looking at suicide risk assessment in practitioners, with a focus on the extent to which a diagnosis of personality disorder influences perceived risk.


Gender roles and reproductive behaviour

I have looked at relationships between women’s control of resources and the characteristics they look for in a partner, finding that women from the UK who are financially independent express stronger preferences for physical attractiveness and weaker preferences for wealth and social status in a partner – preferences that are much more like those typically associated with men. We also find that women who express strong career ambitions report preferring slightly younger partners than is typically expected. Interestingly, we find similar patterns in ethnographic data from non-industrial societies.

I have been trying for some time to manipulate women’s perceptions of their status and – more specifically – their ability to control resources, to determine whether this affects their partner preferences and reproductive ambition (e.g. how many children they want to have). So far this has been unsuccessful, and suggests that women’s understanding of their role in society is complicated. Jaime Benjamin is working on exactly what aspects of status and power are important in this context for her PhD research.

We have also recently investigated women’s earning power and reproductive decisions in a historical context here in Dundee. This is allowing us to determine whether our gender roles expose us to different types of stress, and whether this has implications for our endocrinological responses and our health.


Life history strategies and trade-offs

Ecology has come a long way in explaining how individuals maintain costly traits that are attractive to the opposite sex. I’m interested, in particular, in the ways in which stress influences the allocation of resources to sexual signalling.

The male sex hormone testosterone has received a lot of attention in this respect, due to its role in the development of sexual signals. More recently, the glucocorticoid hormones released under stress have also been implicated. I have been testing the relative contribution of each hormone, alone and in combination, on expression of male secondary sexual traits in humans (facial masculinity) and great tits (badge size). So far, our results suggest that women find the faces of men with low levels of the stress hormone cortisol to be attractive, but that the strength of this preference depends upon the level of testosterone.

In a cross-species meta-analysis, we find no consistent relationships between stress and sexual signalling, and argue that

I have worked with Professor Indrikis Krams at the Universities of Tartu and Daugavpils to look at the effects of environmental conditions on the allocation of somatic resources to various functions including growth, immunity and reproduction (e.g. great tits, greater wax moths, mealworm beetles).