Strategic Initiatives: Suicide Research and Education
In April 2016 the National Center for Health Statistics reported that in the US, the suicide rate increased 24 percent between 1999 and 2014. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, with just over 44,000 suicides per year in this country (afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/). For mental health professionals, the suicide of a patient is the worst possible outcome of treatment. While many causes of death are not preventable, suicide is one cause of death that often leaves survivors with the sad feeling that it could have been otherwise…if only.
Addressing this profound problem is the focus of our Suicide Research and Education Strategic Initiative, which builds upon what we have learned and experienced in our clinical work. The majority of patients at Riggs report experiencing suicidal ideation at some point in their life, and about half of the patients admitted report a history of at least one prior suicide attempt. Our patients have much to teach us about suicidal states of mind, and how a person moves from ideation to action, a process that, while critical to understand, has been somewhat elusive to researchers in the field.
This new initiative extends our ongoing efforts to study the process of suicide, as individual, interpersonal, developmental, biological, sociocultural, and psychological phenomena. Several projects are now underway as part of this initiative. The main research study, “Impact of Interpersonal Experiences on Maladaptive Thoughts and Behaviors,” is led by principal investigator and Riggs’ Research Psychologist Katie Lewis, PhD. Using state-of-the art technology, including Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA), we are able to study our patients’ reactions to various interpersonal encounters over the course of a day for several weeks. Instead of measuring experience at one or two points in time, Dr. Lewis’ study will allow us to understand experience in real time, through repeated measures. Dr. Lewis is hoping that this study will illuminate the interpersonal vectors involved in changes in mood, impulsivity, and both adaptive and maladaptive coping responses.
Other aspects of the Suicide Research and Education Strategic Initiative include ongoing publication of research from the “States of Mind Preceding a Near Lethal Suicide Attempt” study. We also hope to conduct a follow-up assessment with participants from this study to see how they are doing and what has changed (or not) over the past five years. Understanding the developmental course of suicidal thinking and behavior remains a goal of this study, where we are still learning about what sorts of life experiences may contribute to chronic or episodic suicidal thinking.
In addition to the ongoing and new research projects at Riggs, the initiative includes a weekly study group focused on understanding the most recent research findings in the area of suicide studies. We are also continuing to present our research and clinical findings to professional audiences and to provide public education about suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.