September 04, 2019

Connecting on Jamie’s Birthday

Warm greetings from the James Kirk Bernard Foundation, and welcome to our eNews, Create-Connect-Contribute. I’m Liz Bell, the new Executive Director of JKBF, and I am pleased to be able to honor Jamie’s memory and contribute to the important work of the foundation.

Today at JKBF we are reaching out in recognition of Jamie’s birthday, and celebrating the impact of his life on others.

You have received this newsletter because you signed up at a conference or event, or you have supported the foundation’s efforts in the past. As we expand on our communications, it is our hope that you will follow our research and creative legacies news, and share our mission and our message with others who might be interested in engaging in these conversations and explorations.

At JKBF, we preserve Jamie’s creative contributions and those of other deceased artists through online creative legacies at POBA: Where the Arts Live. We support suicide prevention efforts on college and high school campuses through grants to Active Minds and at Jamie’s alma mater, Bard College. And we are interested in bringing creative thinking to our research mission, which focuses on an emerging but under-explored area of suicide science: biological and modifiable factors that influence suicide risk.

JKBF was formed in honor of Jamie, a brother, a son, a friend, and an artist who left us too soon, almost a decade ago. We continue to see the suffering, the loss, and the pain of suicide all around us, and statistics that continue to increase. Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the US and worldwide, and the second leading cause in young people ages 10-34. For each statistic, there are moments that will never be shared, ideas and stories that will not come to life, and family, friends, and communities that will be forever altered.

Suicide is a distressing public health concern, and for so many, a devastating private struggle and immeasurable loss. Let’s make a difference together.

Biological Suicide Research–why it matters

As a society, we are getting better at talking about mental health concerns and suicide (#seizetheawkward and #endstigma), collaborative efforts such as Project2025 and ZeroSuicide are working to stem this tide, and we do recognize that suicide is preventable. But it is also very complex.

While most research and therapeutic attention in the suicide field addresses a person’s mental and emotional background and state, we know that suicide is often multi-factorial, and one factor alone is not enough to predict who might consider or attempt suicide. Even as mental health disorders and/or emotional trauma are correlated with suicidal thoughts or behaviors, only a comparatively small number of people with traumatic histories or mental health diagnoses will take suicidal action. And, many individuals who take suicidal action have no known history of trauma or mental illness. It is challenging to predict who is at high risk, and when intervention is required.

As it becomes evident in other ‘brain-based’ conditions, research is starting to suggest that some biological, physiological, and lifestyle factors may be correlated with heightened suicidal thinking (ideation) and suicidal action (attempts or completions).

The factors of interest are not always obvious, and while they may increase risk, they often do so without specificity-which is part of what makes suicide so unpredictable. While a history of trauma and mental health concerns represents a heightened risk of suicidal behaviors, so do physical health issues and chronic diseases, a wide variety of medications, head injuries, and some factors as common as alcohol use, caffeine, seasonal allergies, and sleep deprivation.

We also know that the brain is attached to the rest of the body, and that many factors influence how we feel and behave, minute-by-minute and day-by-day.

The science mission of JKBF is to promote the investigation of biological factors and pathways. We believe that in fostering targeted biological research, the field can help to uncover:

  • measurable risk markers to identify who needs help, and when
  • contributing factors that could be modified or avoided
  • protective factors, that might reduce a person’s risk
  • causes, mechanisms, and pathways responsive to treatments

We do not expect that these efforts will necessarily find ‘the cause’ of suicide as there are clearly many influences and no single cause, but hope that research can provide tools that will increase our ability to identify and support those who need it. In addition to helping to build the biological research field, we believe that enhanced understanding will raise conversations and insights from the community, and awareness of preventive measures and treatable issues within clinical medical and psychiatric practice.

It is our hope that our eNews will help to spark these conversations and reflections. We will share information on what the field currently knows about suicide—rates, risks, funding, etc. We plan to provide insights from researchers who can help us understand how biological processes and exposures might promote suicidal thinking and behavior, with the hopes of opening doors to frameworks and/or treatments that can accentuate current best practices. We invite comments and insights, from researchers and clinicians, individuals with suicidal ideation and attempts, and from family, friends and caregivers of loved ones who struggle or have attempted or completed a suicide.

We know that suicide is everywhere and touches everyone. It is our goal to reduce stigma, to create increased exploration of biological influences, to connect people, experiences, and investigators within this community, and to contribute to an understanding that enhances prevention and treatment and stems the tide of this heartbreaking condition.

You can support our efforts with a donation or signing up for our newsletter.