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Bringing Suicide Research to Students in Texas

19 Jun 2020 — 4 min read

By Tessa Gutierrez

The Second Half of the Sentence

Jun. 19, 2020 - I was in awe of all the many wonderful volunteers from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention whom I met while attending my first Chapter Leadership Conference — an annual event in which volunteers and staff from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention come together for three days to share successes and learn how we will all work to meet our mission of saving lives and bringing hope to those affected by suicide. Learning about all of the impactful events taking place year-round was inspiring, and highly motivated me to create an impact in my own community.

I am a mother of two young boys, a wife, and have my master’s degree in social work. During my time as a graduate student, I was a research assistant for youth studies. Research has always been of particular interest to me, whether it be behavioral sciences or medicinal findings — even something as mundane as researching the best steam mop to clean up my home. Upon learning about AFSP’s Research Connection program, in which suicide prevention researchers come to speak about their studies to general, lay audiences in one’s local community, it seemed fitting for me to host an event, and help to highlight the importance of suicide prevention research here at home.

I began planning over the next month. Working hand-in-hand with chapter board members and AFSP’s research department, we received approval to hold the event in the Rio Grande Valley, instead of the closer city of San Antonio, as doing so would bring the event to an underserved area of Texas.

In this particular area of the state, the population faces disparities in physical and mental health care in a largely growing area, due to its proximity with the border. The U.S. Census Bureau in 2018 estimated that, in comparison to the rest of the state of Texas, the Rio Grande Valley had the highest levels of poverty.

Additionally, our community is located in an area which has multiple detention centers for unaccompanied minors, who may themselves be struggling with their mental health or having thoughts of suicide. Along with a major influx of detainees, there is sadly a lack of resources and training designed to help these individuals with these concerns. Bringing knowledge and research to our health professionals can help lead to more sympathetic care and treatment options for those at-risk.

We also had a strong desire to bring an AFSP event to the local area in order to demonstrate to our community patrons – many of whom have attended, donated and participated in our local Out of the Darkness™ Community Walk – that their time and fundraising efforts can go a long way at the local level. It made sense to hold the event in the same city and proximity to where the walk has been held annually for the past seven years.

After identifying the location, the next step was finding a researcher local to the area. We worked with AFSP Vice President of Research, Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, and determined that Dr. Ramiro Salas, Associate Professor of Psychiatry Research at Baylor College of Medicine, would be our featured researcher. Dr. Salas’ research on “Understanding the Brain and Genetics in Suicide” was a topic I felt would generate high interest from many in our area.

Once we confirmed with Dr. Salas, I began efforts to partner with my area’s largest university, through a connection I had with the university’s Counseling Center director, Dr. Albert. Directly partnering with the university helped encourage student attendance and ensured a proper, accessible location. As professors were notified of the event, they encouraged their students to attend, with some even offering attendance as an extra credit to their students. Due to popular demand and interest at other campus locations, the university set up a live stream with two different additional campuses, each close to an hour away.

Attendees were truly engaged during the event. Dr. Salas helped in keeping the presentation relevant, with a great sense of humor, and his charisma and passion for the topic of suicide prevention was contagious. His research was mind-blowing; even when talking about scientific specifics, Dr. Salas made it so we all could understand the big picture.

The idea that genetics can play a major role in our behavior goes a long way towards understanding why there are individuals who decide to take their life or have thoughts of suicide. For me, learning from Dr. Salas’ research helped me in processing my own grief in losing my mom, and furthered my understanding of suicide risk factors that may not be immediately apparent.

Dr. Salas studies suicide by looking at images of the brain and finding areas that are different between people who have had suicidal ideation or made a suicide attempt, and those who have not.  He combines this with genetic information.  Imagine if a brain scan and genetic test could let someone know they are at increased risk for suicide and therefore they can have regular mental health and well-being check-ins, monitor their risk, and intervene quickly should the risk of suicide increase.  This is what is recommended for heart disease, cancer and other health conditions; like other health conditions, most people may never experience the condition or have milder forms, perhaps in part because of their self-care.

As I reflect upon the success of bringing this program to our community in Texas, I think of how we can present an even more engaging topic for the next Research Connection event we host. We learned through student feedback that, if we were to repeat the event at this university, they have a desire to go on to learn about a topic even more specific to their own demographic, such as research in minority populations and suicide, or research into depression and stress in college students.

I had the pleasure of hosting this Research Connection and hope to do so again in the future, bringing a greater understanding of suicide prevention research to my local community, and educating us all on the #Science2StopSuicide.

Check in with your local chapter or walk site to see if they will be hosting an AFSP Research Connection program in your community, click here.

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