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A new measure of ontological insecurity predicts mental health

In two large studies of non-clinical participants (N = 600), published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2020, Dr. Nicholas Marlowe and his colleagues developed the Ontological Insecurity Scale (OIS-34), the first psychometrically sound measure of the degree of coherence and integrity attaching to the sense of self.

Having operationalised the construct, the researchers became the first to examine the hypothesis that ontological insecurity would be a significant predictor of psychological symptoms. Within their non-clinical sample, the researchers observed the OIS-34 to predict subclinical signs of psychosis more powerfully than measures of childhood trauma, parental bonding or adult attachment (relational) style. Both an anxious adult attachment style and ontological insecurity were powerful predictors of depression. Those participants who reported current or historical mental health problems, scored significantly higher on the OIS-34 than those with no such histories.

The findings are important for three reasons:

  1. There may be implications for the psychological treatment of more severe symptoms of clinical depression and/or psychosis. The findings raise the possibility that new psychotherapeutic approaches that focus on ontological insecurity may be more effective than those commonly employed today. In particular, the results suggest that the principles of open dialogue and existential psychotherapy might usefully inform the more main-stream evidence-based cognitive and interpersonal approaches.
  2. Ontological insecurity is just as relevant to persons with mild psychological problems as it is to those at the more severe end of the spectrum.
  3. The findings are consistent with the growing scientific literature that conceives of psychological problems as lying on a continuum rather than in discrete ‘diagnostic’ categories. Such arbitrary divisions often do more to obscure than enhance our understanding of how people develop psychological problems, how they recover and how they stay well.

Our research is part of a growing picture of humanity, possessed of degrees of sensitivity, such as ontological insecurity, that may contribute to the onset of psychological problems in the face of difficult circumstances. Such sensitivities, however, may not be problematic in themselves and, may, in other circumstances, add to the richness of life’s experience.