Suicide Prevention Research Can Be a Lifesaver

Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman

There was a time when people didn’t know that suicide is preventable. Before suicide prevention research began in earnest, people were afraid to even talk about suicide, because they thought they could cause someone to die by suicide if they spoke the word: that it would put the idea in their head, and the person in distress would act on it.

The only time the brain was even mentioned was if there was physical damage to the brain as the result of a suicide attempt. 

People placed social judgments on those with mental health conditions because they didn’t understand that the brain is an organ that can be remedied, just like other organs. Research, a guided process of inquiry, has led us to learn that suicide is, at least in large part, a brain condition that relates to the balance and function of brain chemicals that affect thinking and decision-making. Because of this, during a moment of crisis, those at risk can’t access their usual coping strategies and tools for problem-solving that would otherwise get them though these most painful and desperate moments.

When I was a kid in science class, we learned, essentially, that you were stuck with the brain you had. In the decades before we started asking people directly about their suicidal ideation and behavior, we could not fathom that we would have the research tools to look inside the brain, measure brain function or learn that psychotherapies can actually change brain function. 

We know now that the brain has a tremendous amount of plasticity and opportunity for growth and change—so suicide can be prevented.

When I started in the field of adolescent suicide research over 30 years ago, no one would engage in studying teen suicidal behavior because they were afraid to talk with teens about suicide. As a young researcher, I conducted a study of high school students. What I found was that they were thinking about suicide, planning it, and even making attempts. But still…no one talked about it.

We now know from research that biological, psychological, social and environmental forces all play a role in suicide deaths and suicide prevention. We know that genetics can play a role and, through research, we are learning how. For example, stress genes that affect sensitivity to stress and resilience are different in people who die by, or attempt, suicide.

Through research, we have also learned that if we want to reduce suicide, we cannot just treat the underlying mental health conditions. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors need to be addressed directly, and changed through targeted psychotherapies. For many, medication is part of recovery. These interventions lead to brain changes that help prevent the tunnel vision that temporarily wipes out an individual’s capacity to engage in life-saving actions in the face of what can seem like unbearable pain. We have learned through research that if we can help people through suicidal urges, they are not likely to die by suicide. 

However, genes are not destiny: they are only part of the picture.  Environment also contributes, in terms of the person’s exposure to stress, as well as early trauma, head injury, substance use, and brain chemicals. 

Each person’s risk for suicide is unique; yet there are common contributors. This means we need to study many people to learn how best to identify individuals at immediate risk and then provide them with the tools for survival. These tools include social connection; biological tools such as medicine, exercise, and sleep; and tools to manage thoughts and behaviors to get through high intensity suicidal moments, like having a safety plan.

We’ve come a long way. We understand now that the danger lies not in talking about suicide, but in not talking about it. For those who are thinking about taking their life, it can be a tremendous relief to talk with someone who cares. But there is still much to learn.

Research has enabled us to make great strides in our understanding of suicide, and how to prevent it, over the past 30 years. We must continue to invest in order to drive the rate of suicide down, and save lives.

Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman is Vice President of Research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

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Funding research gives all of us a better chance of living a healthier life.
Pam Hirata, heart disease survivor