The Importance of Research in Understanding Suicide



National Suicide Prevention Week posterby Aaron Beatty

It has been a year since the last National Suicide Prevention week, a year in which, according to the American Association of Suicidology, an estimated one million more individuals worldwide have taken their own lives. 

While we continue to have more open and honest discourse about suicide – Robin Williams’ recent suicide has broadened the conversation – and there is recognition that suicide is a major preventable cause of premature death on a global level, the reality is that reducing stigma and broadening awareness are only a part of our collective responsibility. Yes, we should talk more openly about suicide and reduce the stigma that persists around mental illness. But another, perhaps more crucial imperative is to work toward an understanding of suicidal thoughts and actions. 

Jane G. Tillman, PhD, Evelyn Stefansson Nef Director of the Erikson Institute for Education and Research at Riggs, states, “As clinicians and researchers, when a person commits suicide we are motivated to work to find more effective treatments or to understand the dynamics of suicide better with the hope of prevention or more effective intervention.” 

Dr. Tillman is the principal investigator on an externally funded study, States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt, in which researchers studied 131 participants, of whom over half had made a suicide attempt.  Dr. Tillman and Dr. Jennifer Stevens interviewed 12 participants who had made a near leathal suicide attempt in the two years prior to their admission to the Austen Riggs Center. The study also looks at measures of resilience,  reasons for living, impulsiveness and psychic pain. 

The study, which involves Riggs patients, is underscored by the fact that Riggs patients, who come from all across the country, often struggle with suicide; more than half struggle with suicidal ideation and some have made a near-lethal suicide attempt. 

Cathleen Morey, LICSW, director of clinical social work at Riggs remarks that  suicide is often viewed as an “intrapsychically-determined phenomenon,” In Morey’s recently published  article “The Influence of Intergenerational Family Dynamics on Suicidal Behavior: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Intervention” from Smith College Studies in Social Work, she writes, “family therapy informed by psychoanalytic principles is a potentially valuable treatment modality for suicidal patients and their families.” She elaborates by stating that such an approach “offers [patients] an opportunity to makes sense of their struggles within an intergenerational context, find meaning in symptoms, [and] make sense of problematic family dynamics,” which can disrupt the patient’s suicidality. 

It is certain, suicide is a complicated action that is mired in a multiplicity of causal variables. Elizabeth Weinberg, MD, staff psychiatrist at Riggs commented, “The best evidence we have available is that effective treatment of those at risk for committing suicide involves a human connection, an attempt to understand the nature of the problem, and the view of the patient as a person who exists in an interpersonal, social, and cultural context, as well as a medical and psychiatric context.”

By engaging in research, we can work toward understanding suicide and suicidal behavior more fully and thereby uncover and pursue the best ways to reach and treat those who struggle with suicide while providing an evidence base that elevates the issue beyond awareness and moves us toward action. 

Related reading 

Improvement and Recovery From Suicidal and Self-Destructive Phenomena in Treatment-Refractory Disorders
a clinical paper by Eric M. Plakun, MD, associate medical director/director of admissions and others 

Suicide: From Chronic Risk to Imminent Danger
an overview of the States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt study

Nina Gutin, PhD, speaks about her work on suicidology

Nina Gutin, PhD, speaks about The Suicide Prevention Partnership 

Suicide Rates on the Rise
a blog series by Elizabeth Weinberg, MD, staff psychiatrist 

How Society Discusses Suicide
a blog post exploring Benedict Carey’s New York Times article, “Suicide Prevention Sheds a Longstanding Taboo: Talking About Attempts”