The International Summit for Suicide Research: Recap 2017

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From left to right: Igor Galynker, M.D. , Jill Harkavy-Friedman, Ph.D.,  Yeates Conwell, M.D., Robert Gebbia, CEO

December 6, 2017 – The International Summit for Suicide Research, co-sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the International Academy for Suicide Research (IASR) in Henderson, Nevada, November 5 through  8, was a huge success. Four hundred and eight researchers from 30 countries met to share ideas about suicide and their approaches to suicide research. The quiet setting outside bustling Las Vegas provided a calm atmosphere for researchers studying suicide from every angle – neurobiological, genetic, psychosocial, treatment, and community interventional – to attend presentations and symposia, as well as relax together and exchange ideas.

Research Grants Administer, Gabrielle Swisher speaking with an attendee

After an optional tour of the extraordinary Hoover Dam, the first day began with a living room style event in which Dr. Mann, an AFSP Board and Scientific Council member, chatted with Dr. Victoria Arango, the IASR Morselli award winner and AFSP Scientific Advisor from Columbia University and the National Institute of Mental Health. The two spoke about Dr. Arango’s career, her personal connection to suicide, and her ground-breaking research that demonstrated that different areas of the brain contribute to suicide. Next, Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, AFSP’s vice president of research, chaired a lively debate in which Dr. Eric Caine, co-Director of the Center for Study and Prevention of Suicide at the University of Rochester, presented the case for population based research and Dr. Mann, of Columbia University, made the case for using high-risk approaches to study people who are suicidal.

Very early the next morning, over a hundred young investigators participated in a ‘speed-dating’-style event in which they met with potential mentors for just a couple of minutes each. They were then paired with a mentor with whom they could meet and discuss their research and career plans to gain insights about how to make their efforts as effective as possible. Mentorship continued throughout the conference and will extend forward beyond the three-day meeting.

Clement Zai, one of AFSP’s grantees presenting at the poster session

Days two and three featured symposia covering such questions as, “How do we understand youth suicide?” “What are the biological underpinnings of suicide?” and, “How do we attend to ethical considerations when engaging in suicide research?” New methods using artificial intelligence and machine learning were presented along with the most effective therapy interventions for suicidal individuals. Topics covered included suicidal ideation and behavior in the military; involving suicide attempt survivors in research; “What is the impact of suicide on others?” and brain function and decision making among suicidal individuals. 

Keynote speakers included Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, who discussed new directions in suicide research. Dr. Maria Oquendo, president of IASR, past-president of the American Psychiatric Association, chair of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, and AFSP Scientific Council and Board Member, made the case for suicidal behavior being considered as a psychiatric diagnosis.

Joshua A. Gordon, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

Tuesday morning attendees learned about potential funding mechanisms such as those available from AFSP, NIMH, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Department of Defense. Poster sessions were held with over a hundred presenters, standing beside their posters discussing their studies with other researchers. Each day, there was a tour of young investigator posters in which posters were rated by senior researchers and an award was presented for the winning poster for the day.

Meanwhile, representatives from AFSP’s PR and Marketing departments remained behind the scenes, conducting video interviews with a variety of researchers in order to share important ideas and findings from the diverse group of people assembled. These video interviews will be shared over the next year in hopes of spreading greater awareness of the science of suicide prevention.

Dr. Doreen Marshall, AFSP’s VP of Programs, Professor Rory O’Connor, and Dr. Christine Moutier, AFSP’s Chief Medical Officer

The conference concluded with keynote speakers Dr. Lena Verdeli, from Columbia University, speaking about global perspectives on suicide, and Dr. Lakshmi Vijayakumar, from India, whose work in refugee camps demonstrates that suicide prevention is possible in the most difficult settings. AFSP’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Christine Moutier closed the conference bringing together the learning that had taken place during the previous three days.

A frequent refrain throughout the conference was, “This has become my favorite meeting.” The special event, held once every two years, truly represented an opportunity for the world’s preeminent suicide prevention researchers to learn from and inspire one another while moving the field forward. 

*AFSP and IASR have already begun planning the 2019 conference.

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