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A Florida school district has agreed to pay $600,000 to settle a case involving a principal who hypnotized students, three of whom died shortly after (some from suicide). Many of the reports in the media include statements drawing a causative link between the hypnosis and the suicides.

For example, the lawyer for the families of the students is quoted by the Washington Post as saying:

He altered the underdeveloped brains of teenagers, and they all ended up dead because of it.

The Tampa Bay Times quoted a psychologist, Richard Spana, as saying:

The issue in working with hypnosis is that there can be latent things that are triggered, like past experiences and memories, and the patient can have a bad reaction... Does hypnosis cause suicide in and of itself? That's not really likely. Can it trigger some sort of mental health problem that was dormant? Yes.

These statements were also repeated by the Washington Post.

This book compiles some statements dating back to the 1960s that also suggest a widely-held belief that using hypnosis on depressed patients increases their risk of suicide. The author says that there is a widespread belief among clinicians that hypnosis carries an increased risk of suicide. He dismisses this belief on the basis that some of the mechanisms by which the link is claimed to act are based on faulty assumptions. However, he does not mention any evidence refuting such a link, either.

Meanwhile, a television mentalist, the Amazing Kreskin, is quoted by the NY Daily News as saying that it is impossible for hypnosis to cause suicide:

If it's possible to cause suicide through hypnosis, should I seriously consider going on satellite television with the attempt to attract viewers who are members of ISIS and then bring about mass suicide of our enemy?... The question I suggest is who in the hell had the asinine, imbecilic, stupid, unscientific idea that this had to do with hypnosis?

which states that hypnosis cannot singlehandedly cause suicide, but doesn't address whether it can be a contributing factor in someone with existing mental health issues. Similar statements were made by other personalities.

So to summarize: we have people saying that the claim is feasible, and people saying that the claim is ludicrous. I have not seen any facts or evidence, though.

Is there any evidence one way on the other on whether hypnosis can trigger latent mental health problems or exacerbate existing mental health problems, and thereby be a contributing factor in a suicide?

  • Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who claims to be a trained hypnotist, stated the same (that it's impossible for hypnosis to cause suicide) on his blog, IIRC perraining to the same Florida event – user5341 Dec 29 '15 at 4:05
  • Given that many antidepressants come with warning labels that they increase suicide risk, it doesn't seem farfetched that hypnosis does as well. Anything that gets a depressive person to take action can likely increase suicide chances. – Christian Jan 1 '16 at 14:47
  • The OP himself mentions that according to a psychologist, hypnosis does not cause suicide in and of itself but it might trigger dormant mental health problems. The psychologist does not say anything more than that referring to this Slate article-slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/10/07/… and more about hypnosis is present here-news.psu.edu/story/141251/2005/10/03/research/…! – pericles316 Jan 5 '16 at 14:30
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According to HYPNOSIS: ETHICS AND RISK MANAGEMENT ISSUES :

Focus upon one symptom can result in "symptom substitution". The hypnosis based treatment may appear to eliminate the original problem, while a different problem is substituted.

Another woman with a history of panic disorder saw a psychologist for help with her disabling panic attacks. The psychologist used DSIH [direct suggestion in hypnosis] and cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT) to help her learn “coping skills.” The patient learned positive self talk, affirmations, progressive muscle relaxation, and controlled diaphragmatic breathing. After several months of treatment, she became severely depressed and needed to be hospitalized after attempting suicide.

Additionally, according to Attitudes of Psychiatrists to the Use of Hypnosis :

Untoward results associated with hypnosis occurred in 201 cases, usually with poorly trained hypnotists, and a few followed psychiatric treatment using hypnosis. The commonest complication was the precipitation of a psychotic episode. Acute anxiety, panic states, depression, and suicide also occurred. In 2 instances organic disease was masked. Unstable persons, particularly passive-dependent and prepsychotic individuals, may be harmed by hypnosis. The hypnotist must have an understanding of the patient's psychological state to avoid mishaps.

  • So does this finding apply for all people undergoing hypnosis or only for a particular population such as unstable individuals who are passive-dependent and prepsychotic ? – pericles316 Jan 6 '16 at 13:00
  • @pericles316 "There is a substantial body of clinical and experimental research data documenting the incidence of mild to severe after effects coincident with the use of hypnosis in persons with no prior history of similar medical or mental problems." American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis vol. 31, page 40 tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00029157.1988.10402766 – DavePhD Jan 6 '16 at 16:13
  • Interesting answer. The second article is from 1962, though, and I suspect that our understanding of psychology has changed quite a bit since then. Similarly, "symptom substitution" was a popular theory once, but has fallen out of favor and doesn't seem to have ever had much support from empirical evidence; see e.g. this review article. – ff524 Jan 6 '16 at 21:41
  • @DavePhD-Could you kindly explain whether those mild to severe after effects are related to suicide asked by the OP or other psychotic symptoms which is referred in the 1988 article by Frank Machovec Ph.D.? – pericles316 Jan 7 '16 at 6:20
  • @pericles316 sorry, I'm not really qualified to say. I'm a chemistry PhD, not psychology. Maybe I shouldn't have answered the question. – DavePhD Jan 7 '16 at 14:57
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A summary of research in 2001 on negative consequences of hypnosis inappropriately or ineptly applied, Robb O Stanley and Graham D Burrows conclude that adverse effects can arise through the use of hypnosis in clinical and other settings. These effects can be transitory and mildly distressing. However they caution that there might be potential for serious deleterious effects including suicidal acting out when inappropriate hypnosis techniques are applied and there is additional care needed in selecting appropriate techniques when dealing with persons with or without prior history of similar medical or mental problems.

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