A Vision for Research

Author:  Phillip Satow, Chair of the Board, The Jed Foundation
March 07, 2014
News Type:  Director's Corner

Private Sector Co-lead, Research Prioritization Task Force, National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention; Representative, National Council for Suicide Prevention; Chair of the Board, The Jed Foundation

At the end of 1998 I lost my son Jed to suicide. Since then, like so many survivors, caregivers, and advocates, I have worked hard to understand this unendurable tragedy. Sixteen years later, I am happy to be part of the creation of A Prioritized Research Agenda for Suicide Prevention: An Action Plan to Save Lives. This blueprint, if implemented, has a high probability of making a significant impact on our knowledge of suicidal behavior and, most importantly, on the suicide rate itself. The Agenda is a product of the Research Prioritization Task Force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a public-private partnership whose mission is to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. I have the honor of being the private sector co-chair of this task force. The public sector co-chair is Dr. Tom Insel, Director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

Our task force had a vision — a vision of creating a paradigm based on the careful prioritization of suicide research efforts. How else could we allocate our limited resources as effectively as possible to prevent the maximum number of people from taking their own lives?

Our activities in the mental health 501(c)3 world tend to fall into silos. That is, our organizations generally focus their programming and funding within particular DSM categories or illnesses. We know, however, that there are often associated symptoms, co-morbidities, and other complications that caregivers cannot ignore during treatment. For example, substance abuse is associated with many mental illnesses, while symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders may be associated with each of a full spectrum of disorders.

In addition, there is a connection between suicide and emotional illnesses that is stronger than most people realize. Suicide mortality in populations with a mental disorder is about three times that of the general population. Depressed patients have a 20-fold greater lifetime risk for suicide than the general population. Bipolar illness, panic disorder, and schizophrenia are also associated with suicide risk. These associations speak to the interdisciplinary nature of our mission. We all need to understand the brain better than we do if we hope to progress, not only in suicide prevention but in finding better treatments for all illnesses of the brain. Clearly, improving our prospects for suicide research and discovering better approaches to prevent self-harm will benefit all of our respective missions and our common goal of preventing suicide.

Unfortunately the suicide rate has not decreased appreciably in the last 50 years. It’s hard to believe that nearly 700,000 individuals annually report having received medical attention for a suicide attempt each year. Nearly 40,000 people die by their own hand annually. The number of suicide deaths over the years 2000-2009 increased by nearly 26 percent. During the same period, mortality from HIV, asthma, heart disease, and many cancers has declined.

Each year, we spend 40-50 million dollars on suicide research in the United States. The vast majority of these funds come from the National Institute of Mental Health. However, other organizations, like the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also fund research. If we added Veterans Administration and Department of Defense expenditures, the total would be somewhat higher.

Doesn’t it make sense that these funds should be directed to the projects most likely to advance our knowledge base and reduce the suicide rate? I am confident that we all agree that there is no lack of ideas emanating from our research community. But how can we feel confident that funds are directed toward establishing research pathways that would truly reduce the burden of suicide in an optimal manner? The question always remains: if funding was increased, if new funding was developed, how should it be allocated?

There has never been a reluctance to recognize the need for a research agenda. However, because of a combination of the lack of sufficient funding, the lack of an appropriate implementation vehicle, and the inability to galvanize the many disciplines required for the effort, we have not been able to systematically address that need until now.  The 2002 Institute of Medicine report Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative recognized the importance of interdisciplinary research on suicide. Both the original National Strategy for Suicide Prevention promulgated by Surgeon General Satcher and its 2012 update explicitly call for a research agenda. The long elusive goal of completing a targeting agenda has now been accomplished.

At the urging of Tom Insel, the Task Force established a specific numerical goal for reducing suicide burden. We set a goal of developing an agenda for research that, if fully implemented, has the potential to reduce morbidity and mortality by at least 20 percent in five years and 40 percent in ten years. This goal is aggressive and far-reaching — but doable! The achievement of our task force’s goal in five years could lower the suicide rate to less than 10/100,000 and less than 8/100,000 in ten years.

We also agreed that we needed a broad sampling of stakeholders in our field — survivors, caregivers and researchers — to inform us of their personal aspirational goals for future suicide prevention research. More than 700 people who have been touched by suicide answered our questionnaire. The many hundreds of aspirational goals offered by stakeholders were reduced to 12 that were deemed to be of highest priority.

A literature search was conducted, followed by a portfolio analysis which documented the state of ongoing research studies. Opinion-leading scientific minds weighed in to help design or identify research pathways to achieve the prioritized aspirational goals which represented the "wishes," if you will, of the suicide community.

With research pathways identified, the task force and our advisors and experts established short- and long-term research objectives. The recommended pathways and objectives are central to the final task force product and to the achievement of our underlying goal.

So, why do we think it can be achieved? We conducted a systematic review of available suicide death and attempt surveillance, data which helped to uncover promising areas of future research. We developed several models of interventions to estimate the potential benefit for individuals at risk within boundaried communities (enclosed entities like our criminal justice system, college campuses, integrated health care complexes, and HMOs). There are more than two million suicide attempts in boundaried communities. Developing effective interventions for these environments has the potential to bring about major reductions in attempt rates.

Critical to achieving our goals is funder cooperation and transparency. And we must not forget the amount of hard work that mental and health supporters put into advocating for an increase in federal funding for suicide research.

The implementation plan for the task force's final report is critical. We expect all the key funders of suicide research to familiarize themselves with its content. We hope that future funding will be directed at the objectives that are clearly outlined in the agenda. The task force expects that the details of its work will be broadly disseminated and will appear in widely read scientific journals. We hope that researchers will focus their efforts on priorities consistent with those suggested in the plan. We also hope that future funding will be allocated to studies that incorporate thematic elements highlighted across multiple pathways, for example, the increased use of common data elements, banking and sharing to leverage research investments, fielding practical research designs, and finding service quality improvements to reduce suicide.

Lastly, I expect that stakeholders, whose aspirational goals are targets for achievement, will now have a potential rallying point and that they will find the task force’s research priorities understandable and see them connected to their own aspirations and to potential reductions in suicide burden. They may also appreciate the broad definition of research that the document considers, including services research, outcomes research, and prevention research — research that for many may have a more direct and practical association to suicide prevention programing.

Most importantly, we can’t let the agenda sit on a shelf. The potential to save thousands of lives, including those of so many military personnel and veterans, deserves support. I hope each of you can help foster a groundswell of awareness and support for this unique opportunity to help move the suicide prevention field forward.

Planning and Implementing:  Overview of Suicide Prevention