Virginia Tech School of Education researchers study suicide prevention across the lifespan
June 15, 2023
The cold, dreary winter season isn’t the only time of the year when people may need a mental health boost.
Mental health research shows that spring and summer are the times of year when suicide rates are highest in the United States.
“Depression and suicide risk are correlated, and some people who experience depression during the winter months find that it doesn't abate going into the spring months,” said Matthew Fullen, assistant professor and program leader of the Counselor Education and Supervision program in the Virginia Tech School of Education. “Seeing friends and neighbors who experience springtime rejuvenation can be discouraging for these individuals, which exacerbates suicide risk factors like perceived burdensomeness and thwarted belongingness. Additionally, energy levels tend to increase going into the spring months, which can provide an individual who is already at-risk with greater capacity to act on suicidal plans.”
Suicide prevention is important, and some faculty in the School of Education are researching innovative ways to help people face and overcome this issue.
Suicide Prevention in Early Life
Breanna Ellington, assistant professor in the counselor education program, is researching how virtual reality (VR) can be used to train school counselors how to assess and help K-12 students.
Ellington believes that VR training could enhance traditional training methods for school counselors, because it more realistically simulates the actual situations the counselors will be in.
“There are a lot of emotions at play that influence that process, both from the counselor side and the student side,” she said. “My intention is to explore emerging technologies to see how we can integrate these into our preparation practices.”
School counselors have responded positively to the proposed training, and Ellington hopes to expand the pilot research to reach as many school counselors as possible.
“Early intervention is essential to preventing suicide,” she said. A few potential warning signs include major changes in behavior, academic performance, social relationships, and physical signs like decreased interest in appearance and/or personal hygiene or frequently missing school. Significant changes in their life and chronic stress are also important indicators. Although none of these signs indicate an individual is necessarily suicidal, awareness of them is important.
Ellington encourages anyone experiencing suicidal ideation, which includes contemplating suicide, wishing oneself was dead, and actually planning a suicide attempt , to reach out for help. She specifically encourages school-aged students to reach out to their school counselor.
“School counselors are there to support you, to help you,” she said. “Have a conversation so that they can provide the necessary support.”
Suicide Prevention in Late Life
Matthew Fullen researches suicide prevention and older adults, and is investigating a way we might be able to mobilize groups already supporting seniors to help with their mental health.
“We're currently evaluating a program we designed that looks at phone-based social connections between home-delivered meal recipients,” Fullen said.
Although the research is still in its initial phase, Fullen said there is already promising evidence that his program is helping to decrease suicidal thoughts in seniors.
The program, which Fullen has been working on for the past five years, works by training nutrition workers, such as volunteers from Meals on Wheels, in social connection and crisis intervention. The volunteers call seniors to whom they are delivering meals weekly over a two-month timeframe. These phone calls are intended to reduce the isolation many seniors experience and remind them that they matter to others.
Fullen said that the two biggest factors in suicide and suicidal thoughts are ’thwarted belonging’, people feeling that they don’t truly belong in any group and ‘perceived burdensomeness’, believing they are a burden to others.
Jordan Westcott, a doctoral alumni who is also working on the project, says that there are some other major factors, including impulsivity and access to lethal means.
“Older white men are by far the most likely group to die by suicide,” Westcott said. “And this is mostly because they have access to guns.”
Because seniors are more likely to have access to lethal means, and because they are more likely to have health issues, the ratio of suicide attempts to suicide completions is much lower in seniors.
“It's roughly four to one, attempts to deaths, when you get into some of the oldest segments of the population. That means that the opportunities to intervene are fewer,” Fullen said.
Westcott also said that seniors are more likely to have fearlessness about death and have a high tolerance for both physical and emotional pain, which also makes suicide or thoughts of suicide more likely.
“Sometimes, if somebody's been depressed for a long time, and they suddenly seem happy again, they can also be at increased risk of suicide. Essentially, what's happened is that person has decided they're going to end their life, and they feel relief,” Westcott said.
Fullen hopes that people struggling with suicidal ideation reach out to someone to support them and assure them that it will get better.
“Sometimes when people are feeling really low and feeling like they're struggling, there's an assumption that this is how it's always going to feel. There are many people that have gone through deep bouts of depression and suicidal ideation, and even people that have survived suicide attempts, who will share that it is possible for things to feel better,” Fullen said.
Written by Alexandra Krens