Dr Anne-Laura van Harmelen is leading our new research programme to understand what puts young people at risk of suicide – we speak to her to find out more.
Can you briefly describe the project you’re leading? What are the different elements to it?
The HOPES team (Help Overcome and Prevent the Emergence of Suicide) will investigate what different factors increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours during adolescence.
Gaining this understanding is vital. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people worldwide and suicidal thoughts and behaviours typically emerge during adolescence.
We know that at least 16% of adolescents think about suicide, and 8% go on to make an attempt. But right now, we don’t know what specific factors put adolescents at risk.
To help prevent suicide, it is critical to identify the connections in the brain and the social and psychological factors that place adolescents at increased risk. The HOPES project will combine large neuroimaging datasets to identify brain alterations that are associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviours in adolescence. We will then investigate how recent stress and stress in childhood interact with these brain alterations. The aim is to build a model that can predict which young people are at risk of suicide.
What is new about this research?
At the moment, we have not yet been able to identify the brain mechanisms that make young people vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
There are some reasons for this; the most important one is that the majority of previous studies have focussed on adults. Another reason is that the majority of studies in adolescents were very small, which limits their ability to find true effects.
The HOPES team consists of 6 international experts in adolescent mental health, and by combining all our data, we will have brain data on about 4000 young people. It will be the largest study on adolescent suicidal behaviours and thoughts to date.
The other important difference is that we will be able to look at what’s going on in the brain when someone is experiencing suicidal behaviours and thoughts. Specifically, in smaller subsamples, will study how the brain predicts later suicidal behaviour and thoughts. We’re going to be looking at the risk of suicidal behaviours regardless of diagnosis. Finally, we will investigate what’s going on in adolescents’ brains when someone has experienced stress early on and recently in order to better understand the mechanisms that put adolescents at risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Why are you excited about this work?
I am very excited to start the work, but maybe exciting is not the right word here. I think that this area is crucially important. Adolescent suicide is a tragedy that affects the lives of many families, and therefore society as a whole. More adolescents die by suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease. And yet, a recent study demonstrated that in the past 50 years, there has been little improvement in predicting suicide. We really need to focus our efforts on better understanding the factors that put these young people at risk. This research will lay the foundations to help us prevent people taking their own lives. Ultimately, by improving our understanding we hope that we can help reduce the needless loss of young life.
Last updated: 27 October 2017
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