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Researchers at the University partnered with Massachusetts General Hospital to launch the Center for Suicide Research and Prevention in August.
Co-led by Harvard Psychology Department Chair Matthew K. Nock and MGH Psychiatry Associate Chief for Research Jordan W. Smoller ’83, the center will test new interventions in the identification of risk factors for suicide and the treatment of patients at risk. The center was funded in part through a $17 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.
Both Smoller and Nock said the center is responding to an urgent need to address the United States’ growing mental health crisis.
“We’ve seen a 35 percent increase in rates of suicide over the past couple of decades, including a further increase in just the last year,” Smoller said.
Nock noted that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 15 to 34, adding that the suicide rate is “the same now as it was 100 years ago.”
Smoller said the center aims to bring together researchers and clinicians across HMS and MGH to “change the game” in suicide prevention.
“Several researchers around the Harvard campus are focused on trying to better understand, predict, and prevent suicide,” Nock said.
“It's really a multidisciplinary effort, bringing together people with all kinds of perspectives and experience — computer scientists, clinicians, epidemiologists, people with lived experience — to tackle this in a way that really tries to bridge the gap between discovery and implementation in real world settings,” Smoller added. “So it’s really about bringing innovations to practice.”
About half of people who die by suicide visit a hospital in the month before their death, but the duo say clinicians currently struggle to identify who is most at risk.
“Unfortunately, research by our group and others has shown that clinicians right now do little better than chance at identifying who's really at risk,” Smoller said.
The center will test various intervention strategies at MGH to identify at-risk patients, including one study deploying artificial intelligence to help assess patients in the emergency department. The tool will use data-based prediction models to flag patients at the greatest risk of attempting suicide, examining their electronic health record, including any history of depression, bipolar disorder, or substance use disorder.
“We have developed tools or algorithms that can help more accurately predict risk,” Smoller said. “We validated them in other health care systems, and we’ve actually built a clinical decision support tool or app that could help guide clinicians through the development of a care plan and through evidence-based decision making.”
Another study partners the center with the Boston chapter of Samaritans, a Massachusetts-based suicide prevention group. The program will provide a trained Samaritan “coach” to high-risk individuals in order to deliver “evidence-based interventions” in the three months after a hospital visit.
“Things like developing a safety plan, or implementing caring outreach to people when they need it the most, or helping them problem-solve and stay involved in care,” Smoller said. “We’re going to see whether this kind of enhanced outreach can actually reduce rates of suicide attempt and death.”
Nock and Smoller shared that the center’s administrative core includes a stakeholder panel, which comprises “people with lived experience” such as people who have lost loved ones to suicide, who have been involved in military and veteran programs, or who are experienced in community outreach.
The center’s administration also includes an education and training committee that brings together both young and advanced investigators “to expand the workforce and expand the expertise that's devoted to solving this problem,” Smoller said.
When asked about what he envisions for the center in the next five to 10 years, Nock said that his goal is for the center to generate “truly collaborative clinical research.”
Nock added that he hopes that the center builds a group of people who can “make advances on this problem where we haven’t been able to move the needle for the past 100 years.”
Corrections: October 20, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Harvard Medical School had partnered with MGH to launch the Center. In fact, Harvard University and MGH launched the Center.
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Jordan W. Smoller ’83 as the MGH Psychiatry chair. In fact, he is the Psychiatry associate chief for research.
—Staff writer Jade Lozada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Ammy M. Yuan can be reached at email@example.com.
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