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Blog about the International Summit on Suicide Research - Preventing Suicide: Progress through research

posted Dec 7, 2015, 3:42 AM by SBRL Glasgow   [ updated Apr 1, 2016, 3:55 AM by Glasgow Wellbeing ]
Advances in suicide research: causes for optimism?

Eight of us from the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab (SBRL) at University of Glasgow recently attended the International Summit on Suicide Research conference in New York; this important event was jointly organised by the International Academy of Suicide Research (IASR; of which Rory O’Connor is President) and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).  The conference was attended by researchers from all over the world, crossing many diverse fields – from neurobiology to epidemiology and from psychology to social policy– sharing new developments and findings to build and strengthen our ability to predict and prevent the phenomenon of suicide.

With regards to developments in predicting suicide, a finding that resonated with us was the results of a recent meta-analysis of 50 years of research into the risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviours conducted by a team at Vanderbilt University (Franklin and colleagues). Dishearteningly, this meta-analysis indicated that there has been very little improvement in our ability to identify specific risk factors for suicidal thoughts and behaviours, despite so many years of research. This information has really stuck with us since the conference; particularly given the current campaign for more mental health funding in the UK - both for NHS services and for further research. Suicide prevention research is a chronically underfunded area, and this finding really does reinforce our need for more grants to fund this vital research, which hopefully will be translated into saving lives.

The results of the meta-analysis also highlight the need for researchers to push the boundaries in terms of conducting research, in how we conceptualise suicidality and how best to predict suicide and self-harm. In this vein, a number of particularly useful discussions and talks during the conference focussed upon the development of more comprehensive models to understand suicidal behaviour. Although at times conflicting, representatives of the various disciplines came together in a Plenary Panel Discussion to discuss a way forward in the development of a more integrated approach to the understanding of suicidal thoughts and behaviour – with Rory O’Connor (SBRL) leading the case for the importance of psychological perspectives. Witnessing this cemented hope for the future of the field of suicide research to really improve our ability to better predict and prevent suicidal behaviour.

There were many areas of research which gave further cause for optimism during the conference, in particular the studies which described recent advances in innovative interventions such as safety planning interventions (e.g., Boudreaux and colleagues). Some novel interventions using new technologies were also discussed, such as a mobile phone app aimed at reducing self-injury (Vanderbilt lab) and enhancing the delivery of psychosocial interventions via the internet (e.g., Cuijpers and colleagues). Discussion of these developments led to an interesting debate about the ethics surrounding the use of such tools; highlighting the need to weigh up the pros including ease of use and accessibility and potential cons such as loss of face-to-face contact and difficulties implementing risk assessment procedures.

The importance of advancing suicide prevention through partnerships was really emphasised during a session with those with lived experience of suicide. This discussion was focussed on the benefits of including those who have been bereaved by suicide as well as those who have experienced suicidal thoughts and behaviours. The inclusion of service users and those who have experienced suicide first hand is vitally important, because they can offer key information on thoughts and feelings surrounding suicide, and help to inform interventions to help those experiencing suicidal thoughts and attempts. The involvement of those with lived experience at the conference provides an additional perspective on suicide that should be routinely incorporated into suicide research and its prevention. It also serves as a reminder of why such research is so essential and provides motivation, if it was required, for the future of the field.

The members of SBRL at the IASR/AFSP conference at the Waldorf Astoria, New York.


Early Career Researchers’ Mentoring Programme

Another highlight of the conference was the Early Career Researchers’ (ECRs) mentoring programme which included a breakfast meeting. This well organised event was put together by Olivia Kirtley (SBRL) and Elizabeth Sublette (Columbia University). Despite the very early start (6.45am) it was extremely popular and well attended by both senior and early career researchers. Mentors and mentees were paired pre-conference on expressed interests. The meeting was designed to facilitate knowledge and advice sharing between the senior researchers and the ECRs and allowed the ECRs to ask any burning questions that they wouldn’t usually get the chance to ask.

The breakfast meeting was informal, so this helped the ECRs to overcome the sometimes daunting task of approaching senior researchers in a formal conference environment. We really appreciated the less formal tone of the event and were pleased that so many senior researchers took the time out of their busy days –well, they sacrificed some sleeping time– to attend and engage so positively with the mentoring programme. Indeed, the mentors also seemed to enjoy and see the benefits of the programme; this is perhaps not surprising as they were once early career researchers as well!  Inspired by the early career researchers’ programme, the SBRL is hosting a Suicide and Self-harm Early Careers Researchers’ Forum in Glasgow, 3rd June 2016.  This event is open to all ECRs including PhD students.

As well as discussions between mentors and mentees, the breakfast also included some career reflections and advice from Matthew Nock (Harvard University). One of his key messages was to highlight the importance of being nice (together with emphasising hard work and passion).  It was great to get insight into how an individual who is so prominent in the field developed his career. There was also the very informative Editors’ Roundtable session; with useful publication tips from Diego De Leo (Griffith University), Thomas Joiner (Florida State University) and Barbara Stanley (Columbia University). Overall, the IASR/AFSP International Suicide Research Summit was stimulating, enlightening and we’re very much looking forward to the next one in 2017.


Karen Wetherall, Sarah Eschle & Seonaid Cleare

Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab, University of Glasgow


(From top left) SBRL members Julie Drummond, Sarah Eschle, Seonaid Cleare, Olivia Kirtley and Karen Wetherall presenting at the conference.

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