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SBRL Blog: ESSSB17 - It’s great to feel part of the suicide research community

posted Sep 18, 2018, 6:33 AM by Karen Wetherall   [ updated Sep 19, 2018, 1:33 AM ]

A contingent from the Suicidal Behaviour Research Lab had the pleasure of attending the 17th European Symposium on Suicide and Suicidal Behaviour (ESSSB17) held in the beautiful city of Ghent (Belgium) from 5th to 8th September. Bringing together multi-disciplinary suicide researchers, clinicians, policy-makers and those with lived experience from across Europe and internationally, the event was organised by VLESP (under the leadership of Gwendolyn Portzky & Kees van Heeringen), who are the Flemish Centre of Expertise in Suicide Prevention and a partner organisation of the Flemish Government. Indeed, it was clear from the conference that suicide prevention is a key priority for the Flemish Government. Although the Minister responsible for mental health was unfortunately unable to attend, the government had a presence at the event. Interestingly
, the opening ceremony included a very personal talk and performance from Belgian musician Selah Sue, patron of the “Te Gek!?” campaign to get young people to talk about mental health, highlighting her own battles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This was very touching and a fitting opening to Europe’s leading suicide research conference that attracted more than 600 delegates

Musician Selah Sue, patron of "Te Gek?!"

As an early career researcher (ECR) attending conferences such as these can be daunting, as often you feel overwhelmed and out of place among more experienced researchers. However, the conference felt very inclusive, had a relaxed atmosphere that made it easier to talk to and interact with other researchers. This was aided by ECR-specific events, organised by IASP ECR group and Net ECR respectively, bringing together ECRs from different research labs and universities to support each other as well as have some fun! The oral parallel and poster sessions included work from many PhD and post doc researchers, and this added to feeling valued and included in what can be an intimidating setting. 

The presentations covered a vast range of perspectives and research methods; from basic science to interventions and epidemiology. The plenary sessions had engaging keynotes from many established researchers, including from the SBRL’s director Rory O’Connor. His talk focused on research currently being conducted within SBRL and in collaboration with colleagues nationally and internationally; he highlighted findings from the Scottish Wellbeing Study emphasising the role of entrapment in predicting future suicidal ideation as well as the importance of volitional phase factors in differentiating between those who think about suicide and those who attempt suicide. A keynote by David Gunnell (Bristol) included a discussion of trends in suicide and self-harm globally, highlighting that the majority of suicides happen in low and middle income countries, although most research is conducted in more affluent countries. Keith Hawton’s (Oxford) talk covered research aimed at community means restriction, highlighting his seminal research demonstrating that reducing the size of paracetamol packets has saved many people’s lives in the UK. There were also inspiring plenary talks by Alexandra Pitman (London) on future directions for suicide bereavement policy, and Jane Pirkis on the development of the internet and suicide prevention information upon it (Melbourne).The final day of the conference included the last talk by Ad Kerkhof before his retirement, wherein he highlighted advances in psychosocial treatments for suicidal patients including the targeting of mental imagery. 

A number of talks focussed on the media reporting of suicide and the negative effect that this can have upon subsequent suicide trends, although cautionary there was some hopeful discussion of the Papageno effect (Thomas Niederkrotenthaler, Vienna), whereby positive reporting can have a protective influence. Indeed, a highlight of the conference was a symposium organised by Ellen Townsend (and including Rory O’Connor, Tiago Zortea, ex-SBRLer Olivia Kirtley) on engaging the public with research, highlighting the potential benefits of blogs, twitter, TV appearances and public engagement initiatives such as Café Connect. It was clear that there was much to be gained from harnessing both traditional and social media platforms to promote and disseminate research to help shape how society views and understands suicide and self-harm. As well as helping break down the stigma attached to suicide, it can help people know how to talk to those who are suicidal and hopefully change how people think about and communicate about suicide.

Tiago Zortea presenting his PhD findings on attachment.

As well as talks by Rory O’Connor, the conference included talks and posters on the research of other SBRL members. This included findings from Tiago Zortea’s research on how perceptions of past parenting influenced future attachment styles and how this influences feelings of defeat and entrapment. Seonaid Cleare discussed her findings of an experimental study investigating how a self-compassion meditation influences autobiographical memory in those who have a self-harm history. I also presented my own PhD research which highlighted that among those with a suicidal history making unfavourable social comparisons on social
media may lead to feelings of defeat. Additionally, Dave Sandford presented a poster of his systematic review on the impact that losing a patient to suicide can have on mental health professionals. The opportunity to present our research was appreciated and the feedback received from others was positive, which is very motivating and validating. 

Dave Sandford's poster on the impact of the death of a patient by suicide upon mental health practicioners

Seonaid Cleare presenting her PhD findings on self-compassion.

Karen Wetherall presenting her PhD findings on social comparison on Facebook.

Overall, the conference was a really enjoyable experience that exposed me to a wide range of interesting, rigorous and thoughtful research that spanned the many different disciplines that make up the field of suicide research. Often the difficulty was on deciding which session to attend! The social highlight of the event has to be the ESSSB band comprised entirely of suicide researchers (including ex-SBRL member Olivia Kirtley on drums together with Kees van Heeringen, Ellen Townsend, Derek de Beurs and Erkki Isometsa) who made their debut performance at the conference dinner; it was a great surprise and they were brilliant! (Check them out on twitter). It is great to see how researchers of different countries, stages and disciplines come together at conferences - it really helps ECRs to feel part of a supportive suicide research community.

by Karen Wetherall (PhD student and Researcher in SBRL)