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Raising the Bar for Suicide Prevention: Reflecting on the 2021 International Summit for Suicide Prevention Research

23 Nov 2021 — 4 min read

By Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, AFSP Vice President of Research

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Wow! From October 24, to October 27, 2021, many of the world’s most prominent and forward-thinking suicide prevention researchers convened for the International Summit for Suicide Prevention Research, co-sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the International Academy of Suicide Research. This year’s conference was an enormous success, as so many creative and innovative thinkers came together to share their findings and ideas. As the Vice President of Research for AFSP, this was a truly exciting moment, and one I’m thrilled to tell you about.

Five hundred and forty-nine researchers from 37 countries attended the virtual conference, which had originally been set to take place in Barcelona, Spain. The summit went virtual for obvious safety concerns in light of the pandemic, but it offered the opportunity for more people to attend who otherwise might not have been able to.

There were six invited plenary sessions, 28 symposia, 17 oral presentation sessions and almost 200 posters bearing the fruits of so many years of research. In line with AFSP’s strategic goal of building a researcher community to focus on suicide prevention research, there were 210 early career researchers, 78 of whom attended a mentored program throughout the conference. The “Wow!” factor, in my opinion, comes from how much the field of suicide research has grown, greatly due to the efforts of AFSP, and how much we have learned from the work.

I’m not able to capture and share all the details because so much was shared over the course of the conference. But I’d like to summarize a few key take-aways:

  1. Suicide is complex and there is no one-size-fits-all explanation or way to prevent this loss of life. At the meeting, researchers such as Drs. John Mann, Lena Brundin and Gil Zalsman shared biological factors that contribute to suicide including brain function, particularly in the prefrontal cortex or executive area of the brain; genetics related to brain chemicals and response to stress; and the impact of inflammation and the gut biome. However, these factors interact with psychological and social factors such as the experience of early life trauma, family history of suicide, access to lethal means, social media and lifetime and current stress. There’s no single cause of suicide, and each person’s pathway to suicide and prevention is unique. As we study across people, we can learn about some of the most common factors, but we are not yet at a place of being able to prevent all suicides.
  2. We have much to learn about the transition from suicidal thought to action. We know that millions of people think about suicide: in the U.S.in 2019, about 12 million people said they had seriously thought about suicide; about 1.4 million reported at least one suicide attempt; and over 47,000 lost their lives to suicide. While these three groups of people share some characteristics, there are distinct differences between them that we do not yet fully understand. We are learning about how brain function, particularly how decisions are made and how people experience relationships and stress, play roles. This is so much more than we understood ten to twenty years ago! Drs. O’Connor, Joiner, Klonsky and Galynker shared their theories about what makes some people act on their thoughts of killing themselves, and conversely, what saves so many other people experiencing similar thoughts.
  3. More people report feeling depressed and anxious during this time of COVID, yet suicide rates are mostly staying the same or decreasing around the world. David Gunnell, Jane Pirkis, Ann John and Pablo Analuisa Aguilar, among others, talked about the impact of COVID19 with respect to suicide and the potential long-term impact of the pandemic on the economy and on suicide that is still unknown. They described the International COVID19 Suicide Prevention Research Collaboration that is gathering data global in real-time to track the impact of the pandemic on suicide rates.
  4. There is much to be hopeful about for the future of suicide prevention. There were presentations describing interventions such as safety planning, medications like ketamine, and somatic treatments like transmagnetic stimulation (TMS) that are helping people to manage suicidal ideation and behavior, and to develop a life worth living. Much information, comfort and support can be found on social media, despite the availability of toxic material. We can help people reap the benefits of social media and avoid the pitfalls. Dr. Levy-Belz discussed how sharing one’s story of loss, and receiving support from others, helps with the healing process after the loss of a loved one to suicide, and that there is even the possibility of post-traumatic growth. Though it doesn’t take away the pain, it can help survivors of suicide loss to maintain purpose and meaning.

This year’s International Summit for Suicide Research highlighted the importance of research, supporting a researcher community, and sharing ideas and findings to help the field grow so we may save more lives in the future.

I can’t help but think back to 1985, when I began studying suicidal ideation and behavior in high school students. At that time, there were only a few researchers and a couple of small organizations working to bring suicide prevention to the forefront. We were not even supposed to use the word “suicide,” because at the time, it was still scary to many people. In contrast, today we are poised to raise the bar for suicide prevention globally.

Together, we can save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. #Science2StopSuicide

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