Saving lives: How one WKU professor and her students are committed to improving suicide prevention

When Amy Brausch, Ph.D., tells people she researches suicide prevention in adolescents and college students, she’s often met with the same reaction.

“I usually hear, ‘Isn’t that depressing?’” she said. “I always spin it to the prevention side. I feel like what I’m doing saves lives.”

And it does. Although Brausch’s research varies in topic and participants, her work is united by a common goal: use evidence-supported findings to improve suicide treatment and prevention.

A surprising connection between self-injury and suicide risk

Brausch, an associate professor in WKU’s Psychological Sciences department, is currently working on three multi-year research studies.

Brausch and her research colleague, Jennifer Muehlenkamp, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, traveled to the Netherlands in March 2017 to attend a research workshop on non-suicidal self-injury and present their research study.

The first, a three-year project that just started its final year, examines suicide risk in college students over an approximately two-year period.

“We’ve been recruiting college students who have a history of non-suicidal self-injury such as cutting,” she said. “We meet with them in person every six months and they answer questions about their self-harm behavior since their last visit.”

During those visits, Brausch and her team of student researchers also collect information about the self-injury.

“We’re trying to see if there are certain characteristics that increase the likelihood of future suicide,” Brausch said. “Self-injury is a risk factor for later suicidal thoughts or behaviors.”

Although the study is still in progress, Brausch and her co-researcher, Jennifer Muehlenkamp, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, recently published “some unique findings,” Brausch said.

“A lot of studies look at reasons people self-injure, also known as functions, which range from regulating emotions to punishing themselves to bonding with friends,” she said. “But no one had ever looked at if people actually found their self-injury effective in achieving those functions.”

To do so, Brausch developed a questionnaire to measure the perceived efficacy of self-injury. The results were surprising.

“We thought if students said their self-injury worked for a specific function, it might reduce the risk of suicide,” she said. “Yet we were able to show how using self-injury for certain functions, if it works better, actually increases the risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, as well as more severe self-injury.”

 A long but rewarding journey

Brausch’s second research study is a similar topic yet focused on a different group of participants: middle and high school students. By studying a younger population, Brausch can also examine the development of self-injury and suicidal thoughts, tracking them over time to see when they start.

“The main thing I’m looking at is difficulties with regulating emotions, especially with non-suicidal self-injury,” she said. “A lot of times kids and young adults say they do it because they feel bad and they don’t know how to feel better — it’s a way of coping with their strong emotions. Yet no one’s really looked at if they do self-injure, if it makes their ability to handle their emotions better, worse or doesn’t change anything. That’s what this study is examining: if they keep self-injuring over time, are they getting better at managing emotions or is it not helping them or making their abilities worse?”

This study has been funded for the last three years by the Kentucky Biomedical Research Infrastructure Network (KBRIN). The KBRIN program is supported by a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIGMS grant #8P20GM103436-14). Brausch recently learned that she will be receiving additional NIH funding, which will enable her to expand her work to more area high schools.

Amy Brausch, Ph.D., an associate professor in WKU’s Psychological Sciences department, and students at an American Association of Suicidology conference.

The opportunity to work with more high schools is exciting, but also brings with it challenges. That’s why Brausch works so diligently (sometimes for years) to cultivate relationships with each school.

“Schools are understandably protective of students and their time, but they’re also concerned about suicide prevention, so they’re interested in helping,” she said.

No research happens overnight, but Brausch’s work in particular often requires a long-term focus. Her third study is a prime example of what she called “a long process,” largely due to the desired participant group: adolescents hospitalized for psychiatric issues.

When Brausch started the study, she collected data from an Owensboro hospital. For the past year, she expanded the data collection to include a crisis stabilization unit that’s near the university. The focus in this study is a particular treatment for suicidal individuals that’s mostly been used with adults. Before the treatment is expanded to adolescents, it needs research to support its efficacy.

“The study focuses on an assessment form that’s used in the treatment,” she said. “We’re trying to make sure the form makes sense to use with adolescents, that they understand the language and it’s a good fit like it is with adults.”

One way to accomplish this is by having participants respond to other questions that correlate with the form to ensure consistency in the answers. For example, Brausch said, if an adolescent responds on the form that their overall risk of suicide is high, but they get to another question about suicide and they indicate a low risk, that indicates a possible problem with the form and its content (and, by extension, the treatment itself).

Helping students ‘get where they want to go’

Juggling multiple long-term research studies, finding grants, teaching, traveling, training, presenting — Brausch is certainly no stranger to multitasking! Yet she receives support for her research in the form of student researcher teams, which include both undergraduate and graduate students.

Brausch and Shelby Bandel at Bandel’s recent M.S. graduation. Bandel received an American Psychological Foundation grant and will travel to Brussels to present her research. Bandel will begin her Ph.D. program this fall.

“We have a master’s program, and I usually have 1-2 second year and 1-2 first year students at any given time, all of whom want to go on and get PhDs in clinical psychology,” Brausch said. “As part of their assistantship, they help run the lab.”

As part of that experience, students have a chance to learn about project management and supervising undergraduate students. Each graduate student is also required to complete a master’s thesis, and Brausch said students sometimes use data from one of her studies or opt to collect additional data.

“For the past few years that I’ve had graduate students in this master’s program, we’ve had a good rate of getting people into PhD programs,” she said. “They’re very competitive.”

Brausch also works with approximately six undergraduate students at any given time, all of whom receive course credit for working in the lab, not to mention hands-on preparation for graduate school.

“They help with meeting participants coming into the lab, data entry, organizing the lab, doing the scheduling and compiling information for high school visits,” Brausch said.

Brausch and two undergraduate students, Ava Fergerson and Kaitlyn Barriere, who presented their independent project at the American Association of Suicidology’s annual conference in April.

If they choose, undergraduate students can also try their hand at applying for a grant. WKU offers undergraduates a research grant that will not only provide for the student’s work, but also give them the opportunity to present at a national conference. Brausch said her department actively attends a variety of conferences, including a recent trip to Washington, D.C., during which nine students (mostly undergraduates) accompanied Brausch.

And this month, one of Brausch’s graduate students, Shelby Bandel, will travel to a conference in Brussels to present results of the adolescent study as part of an American Psychological Foundation grant, which Brausch said is difficult to get and typically goes to doctoral students.

For Brausch, working with students is similar to her research: they’re both focused on a long-term path and on helping others.

“My goal is to help students get where they want to go,” she said. “A lot of my students want to go on to grad school, so we make a plan and find opportunities for them and I encourage them to apply for things. I really enjoy working with students and mentoring them on research.”