Focusing Research on Understanding Suicide



This text originally appeared in ARC News, 9, No. 2 (2016)

The Austen Riggs Center is focusing some of our research efforts on the issue of suicide.“Suicide is the worst possible outcome,” says Director of the Erikson Institute Jane G. Tillman, PhD. Finding new ways to learn and to help people at risk occupies both her clinical work and her research. Therefore, she is encouraged by a renewed focus on and resources directed toward finding answers to nagging questions: How can we help suicidal patients? What can we learn? Are there things we could do differently?

Dr. Tillman has been searching for answers since the 1990s. Now, she says, “With Dr. Gerber’s leadership, Riggs is making a commitment to really focus some of our research efforts specifically on the issue of suicide and devote institutional resources to do just that.” Part of that commitment has come in the form of newly-hired Research Psychologist Katie Lewis, PhD, who was a research intern at Riggs while attending graduate school, went on to earn a doctorate in clinical psychology and has published several studies based on the data from Riggs’ study “States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt.” 

Katie Lewis, PhD is the Research Psychologist at the Austen Riggs Center, Stockbridge, MA.“I’m thrilled to have Dr. Lewis join our staff,” says Dr. Tillman, adding that with her knowledge of Riggs and Riggs data—she understands well “our potential for what we can do in this field.” 

While many risk factors for suicide have been identified, including prior attempts, family history of attempts, self-injurious behavior, depression and substance abuse, Dr. Tillman points out that “we have a hard time knowing when someone is most acutely at risk—when a person moves from being chronically suicidal to actually acting on a suicidal thought or idea in a way that could be lethal. We need to know more about what is going on at the level of the individual and start developing a framework that explores the trajectory from suicidal ideation to action.” 

The need for research—and new treatment approaches that may follow from it—is clear. Data from the CDC indicates that suicide is the nation’s 10th leading cause of death for all ages. While the mortality rate for other illnesses like AIDS, heart disease and stroke have decreased dramatically over the last 30 years, the suicide rate in the United States has held fairly steady, with a slight increase in recent years—to 12.93 per 100,000 individuals in 2014. That translates to nearly 43,000 Americans who die by suicide each year. “There is a tremendous amount of creative research in the field of suicidology but it has not yet translated into a lower suicide rate in this country” says Dr. Tillman. “We have an obligation to study our patient population, which is unique in many ways in terms of the chronicity and severity of suicidal thinking and behavior,” she adds. 

Supplementing its research initiatives, Riggs will be exploring the topic of suicide through the Erikson Institute’s annual Fall Conference on October 15, 2016. This year’s theme, “Suicide: Theory, Research, and Clinical Perspectives,” will bring together leading experts in the areas of assessment, epidemiology, theories of suicide and clinical practice with suicidal patients. In addition, Riggs is actively involved in planning and participating in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) Berkshire County Out of the Darkness Walk being held on Saturday, September 10, 2016.

Austen Riggs is now well-positioned to make important contributions to the field of suicide research —and through that work, to help save lives. 

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