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Dr. John Oldham, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Although suicide is a difficult topic to discuss, it is an important one because prevention methods need improvement. Baylor College of Medicine’s Dr. John Oldham discusses why it is essential to develop better suicide prevention methods.

“Suicide has been a major concern for the psychiatric mental health field and in the broad field of medicine for decades,” said Oldham, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “The problem that has haunted suicide researchers is that, on the one hand, we know a lot about risk factors for suicide. However, on the other hand, accurately predicting whether or not an individual patient who may have a number of risk factors is going to be someone who dies by suicide is not something that we are good at. While knowing risk factors is helpful, we need to improve prevention.”

Risk factors for suicide include major depression, having experienced severe traumatic stress, incidents of suicide in the family or having been closely associated to someone who has committed suicide.

One of the most pressing areas in need of more research is that of unplanned death by suicide. While some people make a very deliberate plan on how they will carry out a suicidal act, others react on their impulsive suicidal thoughts, Oldham said.  

“We need to know a lot more about unplanned, unexpected suicides, and that’s where researching biomarkers may be helpful in improving prevention strategies,” Oldham said. “If there were genetic ‘fingerprints’ or profiles that, with a high degree of accuracy, could predict suicide it would be enormously beneficial.”  

Since more research is still needed in the area of identifying biomarkers, Oldham recommends using these prevention strategies:

Using the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality (CAMS) strategy. Families can use the CAMS approach to work toward gaining a comfort level to talk about suicide. CAMS can help families to better understand the circumstances and stressors that have led their loved one to think about committing suicide or to attempt suicide. It is important for families to feel confident that their loved one will tell them if they have a resurgence of that kind of scary, despairing, demoralized set of feelings.

• Minimizing the means by which people can hurt themselves also is important. The net installed on the Golden Gate Bridge is a large-scale example of this, Oldham said. It has drastically reduced the number of suicides by jumping off the bridge, and there has been no evidence that this has been replaced by any increase in suicides in other locations or other high bridges.

“The issue here is that not enough initiative is taken to prevent possible suicides. This is what we can improve right now,” Oldham said.  

For people who want to find out more information about suicides and suicide prevention, he suggests visiting the websites for the National Institute of Mental Health, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Psychiatric Association, or American Psychological Association.

“I highly recommend that families seek information from authoritative sources like these because they offer meaningful educational material that can be very helpful,” Oldham said.