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Suicide Prevention Research in Action: Meeting People Where They Are

12 Apr 2019 — 4 min read

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


Learning to Live for Myself

Apr. 12, 2019 - For the past five years, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) has been pleased to be a sponsor of The Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s (ADAA) annual conference. I look forward to the event each year. With attendees who are psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other mental health clinicians, as well as a variety of researchers, the conference is a great opportunity for us to share information about suicide and suicide prevention. It’s also an opportunity to speak about improving clinical care for people at risk for suicide, and to encourage researchers to join in improving our understanding of suicide and intervention opportunities. Our local chapters also offer free AFSP materials throughout the meeting.

Each year, I select a panel of AFSP suicide prevention researchers to share their findings. I always enjoy this creative moment, as I imagine how to communicate new ways to prevent suicide. The theme of this year’s conference, held in March in Chicago, was “Cutting Edge Research to Optimize Treatment Success Transcending Cultural, Racial and Socioeconomic Barriers.” In keeping with this theme, I entitled our AFSP research symposium panel “Interventions to Prevent Suicide: Meeting People Where They Are.”  This made me think about the ways suicide prevention can be brought to specific groups and individuals in their community or situation.

One highlight of the conference for me each year is the researcher lunch, taking place before the panel, as I watch the AFSP researchers who are attending the meeting shift from being strangers to colleagues. Going around the table, they introduce themselves and their research programs. The buzz that accompanies the consequent exchange of ideas and new connections during the rest of the lunch is music to my ears. These kinds of conversations plant the seeds of what may become our next big practical application of research leading to new innovations that will save lives.

Another highlight of the conference for me is listening to our panel. Dr. Jennifer Humensky, from Columbia University, started things off by demonstrating a community approach to suicide prevention, speaking about how an afterschool program for Latina teens, Life is Precious™, helped reduce suicidal ideation and behavior. She shared that she and the program’s developer, Dr. Rosa Gil, met with members of Congress, showed them the results, and secured funding to replicate the program in other communities. This is AFSP research in action.

Dr. Srijan Sen, from the University of Michigan, next spoke about first-year medical interns’ common experience with depression and suicidal ideation. Thousands of medical interns answered questionnaires throughout the year. The study’s findings confirmed that by six-months, depression and suicidal ideation are frequent for medical interns as shift work takes its toll, frequently leading to an increase in mistakes. With a second grant from AFSP, Dr. Sen and Dr. Constance Guille, of the Medical University of South Carolina, are now testing a phone app that provides medical interns with Cognitive Behavior Therapy skills to help prevent the depression and suicidal ideation that emerges during medical internship. For the study, interns receive the app before they start their internship, and can use it throughout the year. So far, it seems to be working! We will know more when the study is finished.

Dr. Stephen O’Connor from the University of Louisville spoke about his experience developing a tool for people medically hospitalized for a suicide attempt, known as The Teachable Moment Brief Intervention. The intervention, which takes forty-five minutes during their hospitalization, motivates people to engage with mental health professionals and others during the high-risk period after they leave the hospital. As it turns out, a brief intervention during hospitalization can be ideal for preventing future suicidal ideation and behavior.

Closing out the discussion, Dr. Igor Galynker from Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York shared how impressed he was by the panel’s findings, which demonstrated how suicide risk can be reduced in a number of different ways. He described his own suicide crisis model, which helps to explain the period of imminent suicide risk. Dr. Galynker noted that the interventions presented during the panel all served to reduce pain and feelings of entrapment, as well as opening up alternative strategies for those experiencing feelings of hopelessness.

The room was full, and the audience completely engaged. I was gratified to know that conference attendees were leaving with new ideas about how they can bring suicide prevention to their own work.  Looking back, I also noted the mutual respect and appreciation the researchers had developed from listening to each other and sharing their work.

I left the meeting grateful for ADAA and the clinicians and researchers from around the country who had gathered to discuss ways to help people with anxiety and depression. Suicide may accompany anxiety and depression, so this conference was a great place to share what we know about suicide prevention. I left feeling proud of the work AFSP does, and grateful for the opportunity I’ve been given to guide our research grants program, and translate our findings into action.

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