As a newly minted assistant professor starting my research career in 2012, I was fortunate to join a team of very capable researchers working to advance mental health care for veterans. While my colleagues supported my professional development in innumerable ways, I did not have the necessary training to develop a research portfolio focused specifically on suicide prevention. Then, in 2014, I learned about the Injury Control Research Center for Suicide Prevention’s Research Training Institute (RTI)*. The institute, which brings together suicide prevention researchers and practitioners, offered a unique opportunity for me to gain the training I was missing in suicide prevention.
What makes RTI such a valuable experience was evident even during the application process. While I knew the suicide prevention coordinator for my site and had worked with her in a previous role, we had not worked together on suicide prevention research. The RTI application process was a catalyst for us to reconnect. Both the local coordinator and her supervisor agreed to be part of my RTI team, and we were selected to attend the institute.
As part of the application process, our team developed a research project that was primarily academic in nature. The title of the project was Novel Predictors of Suicide: Social Cognition as a Malleable Risk Factor. The original aims of the project were to 1) Determine the association between levels of social cognition and history or a prior suicide attempt(s) in Veterans diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder; and 2) Determine whether social cognition is associated with suicidal ideation. During RTI, I was paired with two primary mentors. In addition, my team, other teams and our mentors joined together to form a collaborative group. Through an iterative process of presenting our projects, receiving feedback from the group and revising them, I realized that my academically oriented research was disconnected from upstream prevention efforts and not as user-friendly as it might be. Particular feedback focused on the fact that my research would not directly create products to aid the suicide prevention team in their work. It was a dramatic shift in how I think of my research. Instead of conducting my research in a silo, I realized that I needed to work much more closely with the clinical suicide prevention team. Further feedback from the mentorship team also assisted me in conceptualizing this as a pilot project and I refined my aims to examine effect sizes due to the small sample size.
RTI afforded me the opportunity to build deeper relationships with my local suicide coordinators while also connecting with leading researchers from around the world. The institute included breakout sessions and presentations from researchers that I may not have met otherwise. The mentorship from these faculty members (particularly Dr. Monica Matthieu and Dr. Linda Degutis) was invaluable.
Through the community of practice, I also continued to collaborate with the suicide coordinators, and their insights inform my work. We work together on the development of new projects, grant applications and publications. Our team thought that a significant hole in safety planning for suicide prevention is the lack of involvement from a concerned significant other. We received funding from the VA Patient Safety Center of Inquiry for suicide prevention and the VA VISN 17 Center of Excellence to conduct a pilot project. We collected data from Veterans and their concerned significant others to learn more about the feasibility and acceptability of including a concerned significant other in safety planning for suicide prevention. Overall, Veterans and their concerned significant others were enthusiastic about this idea. Our team has presented the results of this research at several conferences, has one manuscript under review and several others in preparation.
These experiences have transformed my research in another way. Of the 20 veterans who die by suicide each day, 14 are not connected to VA care. This sobering statistic represents an opportunity for high-impact suicide prevention research in veteran populations.
Recently, Dr. Justin Benzer and I received a grant to form the VA Patient Safety Center of Inquiry - Suicide Prevention Collaborative (VAPSCI-SPC), which will focus on three guiding principles. First, we seek to develop a collaborative organizational structure that connects VA and community suicide prevention services. Next, we will share suicide prevention best practices between VA and the broader health care community to increase access to high-quality care for all veterans. Finally, we will develop a new program of effective, low-cost suicide prevention services for veterans with emergent mental health needs by capitalizing on best practices for suicide prevention and create products to support the spread of these practices. The local suicide prevention team, Stephanie Claffery and Ruth Cassidy, the state suicide prevention coordinator, Jenna Heise, Dr. Matthieu, Dr. Degutis, and several other RTI faculty are all a part of this project.
Like my research career, this project was profoundly influenced by my experiences at RTI. The network of researchers and practitioners that I connected with there remains an incredible source of mentorship, and its influence is evident in the successful proposal to form the VAPSCI-SPC.
* The ICRC-S Research Training Institute (RTI) is an intensive 4-day training experience, organized and sponsored by the ICRC-S, that brings together teams of suicide prevention researchers and injury control practitioners from across the country, with nationally renowned faculty. Objectives are for the teams to learn about suicide prevention and its study from a public health perspective; receive mentorship in the development of their research ideas; and get to know colleagues across the country with similar interest and professional goals. Each RTI is followed by a year-long series of “community of practice” webinars to reinforce the learning and sustain progress. More information is available at http://suicideprevention-icrc-s.org/.
Bryann DeBeer, Ph.D. is a Clinical Research Psychologist in the Behavioral Science Core of Veterans Affairs VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans and Assistant Professor, Texas A&M Health Science Center, Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System in Waco, Texas. In the fall she will become the Director of the VA Patient Safety Center of Inquiry for Suicide Prevention. She attended the RTI in 2014.