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‘Every Life Is Touched By Suicide’: Stanford Psychiatrist Discusses Importance Of Suicide Prevention

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It’s always a good time to talk about suicide prevention, said Laura Roberts, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“Suicide is such an under-recognized phenomenon, and it is an urgent threat to public health,” Roberts said. “Each year, more than 36,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. That is one person every 15 minutes. In rough numbers, that’s twice the number of people who die from a violent injury in this country. Really, every life is touched by suicide.”

Roberts is also the Katharine Dexter McCormick and Stanley McCormick Memorial Professor in the School of Medicine, chief of the psychiatry service at Stanford Health Care and editor-in-chief of Academic Psychiatry, which recently devoted an issue to the topic of suicide prevention and training. Many of the articles were written by Stanford experts.

The issue includes articles for psychiatrists and physicians on how to cope with suicide professionally, on suicide awareness education programs for medical students and psychiatry residents, on methods of recognizing suicide risk and management and on the suicide prevention experiences of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Contributing factors

Much remains unknown about suicide, yet recent research has begun to offer clues into the psychological triggers, Roberts said.

“Three factors appear to be in play: first, a predisposition or vulnerability — for example, the presence of depression or anxiety that increases the general risk of suicide; second, access to a way to end one’s life, such as a gun; and, third an experience or set of experiences that make the individual feel like he is out of place, isn’t part of things and doesn’t belong — what’s referred to as ‘thwarted belongingness,’” she said. 

  Yet despite their expanded knowledge, psychiatrists must develop skills to cope with the loss of a patient. According to one study, nearly half of psychiatry residents lose a patient to suicide. Roberts said her department strives to create a culture of support. “We’re very, very vigilant to these issues and extraordinarily committed to the well-being of all in our Stanford community,” she said.

“Just as a cardiologist may lose a patient to, say, a heart attack or an oncologist may lose a patient to an aggressive cancer, psychiatrists may lose patients to suicide over the course of our professional lives,” she said. “As psychiatrists, we respond exactly as one would expect — as human beings we grieve the loss very deeply, and as physicians we seek to learn and to prevent another such loss in the future. … We do our best to support the survivors of suicide. Because 1 in 5 adults in this country will experience an episode of mental illness, it is essential that we remain constantly aware of the possibility of a preventable death due to suicide.” 

An extended Q&A with Roberts about suicide is available on the medical school’s Scope blog.

The journal issue was co-sponsored by the Wisconsin-based Charles E. Kubly Foundation, a family foundation that seeks to support those suffering from depression.

Other Stanford researchers who contributed to the issue are Alan Louie, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; Rebecca Bernert, PhD, instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; former undergraduate student Melanie Hom; Belinda Bandstra, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences; and Ann Tennier, senior editorial associate for the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Information about the department is available at

This story was originally published by the Stanford University School of Medicine on Oct. 23, 2014.