Helping Suicide Survivors Find A Way Forward: Kimberly O’Brien

SocialWork@Simmons is proud to introduce one of our highly esteemed faculty members: Kimberly O’Brien Ph.D., LICSW. Kimberly has been a tremendous asset to the Simmons community and her work is nothing short of inspiring. Outside of Simmons, Kimberly has worked tirelessly as an advocate and researcher for suicide prevention.

Given the recent conversation about suicide awareness across the country, we asked Kimberly to share some insight about her research, the #WayForward campaign, and her thoughts on the role media plays in suicide perception.

  1. 1. Tell us a little bit about your experience with Simmons College. How long have you been working as part of our faculty?
    I have been on the Simmons College faculty since July 2013. Simmons has been such an incredible fit for me – the school has given me the freedom to pursue my passion for intervention development for suicidal and substance abusing teens. I have been able to continue my collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital in a research capacity, and in the short time I have been here, get three intervention studies off the ground. I would not have been able to accomplish this at any other institution.
  2. What is your academic focus at Simmons and what courses do you teach?
    The primary course I teach is Assessment & Diagnosis, typically given in the Spring of the first year. I absolutely love teaching this course – the process of assessment with clients is like a puzzle, putting all the pieces together. I love helping students to figure out how to do this. I am currently developing the online version of this course for SocialWork@Simmons, which has been a ton of work but so much fun. Simmons has also supported me in my development and implementation of the Motivational Interviewing course in the MSW program, which we piloted this summer as an elective, and we will continue to teach ongoing. Also, Joanna Almeida and I are co-developing a course tentatively called Understanding Suicide, which we will pilot this Spring as an elective in the program. In this course students will learn about suicide epidemiology, prevention, intervention, and postvention practices.
  3. We’ve noticed that you are very involved spreading awareness around suicide prevention and survival. What inspires you to serve as suicide advocate and be so vocal in the space?
    Suicide is a pervasive problem, especially in youth – in the US it is the 3rd leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults. The seriousness of this problem is not matched by proportionate prevention and intervention efforts. While this alone inspires my everyday work, my passion runs more deeply than what the statistics say. Having experienced a friend die by suicide in college, and having had suicidal thinking myself in my younger years, I feel very connected to the problem of suicidality, and committed to suicide prevention.
  4. You also identify as a suicide researcher. Can you speak in a little more detail about your research and some of your findings?
    I have three projects that I am currently getting off the ground, and one that is still in the preparation stage. The first is a pilot study of a smartphone application intervention called Crisis Care that I co-developed with Dr. Elizabeth Wharff and Dr. Jason Kahn of Boston Children’s Hospital. We are currently testing the acceptability and usability of a web-based prototype of Crisis Care, which is designed for adolescents and their caregivers to use in a suicidal crisis to access a set of personalized coping skills and have immediate access to outside professional help and consultation if needed.
    The second is Project ASIST – this project is testing a brief alcohol intervention for adolescents who have attempted suicide that I co-developed with my postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Anthony Spirito. The intervention is based on motivational interviewing principles and is designed to be implemented in inpatient psychiatric units.
    The third study I am working on is Project LISTEN – this is a project I co-developed with Simmons faculty Dr. Joanna Almeida and Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The aim of this study is to understand the preparatory thoughts, behaviors, and decision-making processes of adolescents who have attempted suicide. This study will obtain data via qualitative interviews with adolescents in the days after they have attempted suicide. No findings yet for any of these projects – we are literally just starting them! I am also working with Chris Nowinski of Sports Legacy Institute to develop a suicide risk screening protocol for youth who have a had a concussion. The first part of this study will involve interviewing the parents of teens who have died by suicide following a concussion, and the second part of the study will test a suicide risk screening tool in a concussion clinic for youth.
  5. Suicide has often been stigmatized as an issue we should keep quiet. Why do you think it is important to talk about suicide?
    Suicide is a huge problem facing our society. By keeping quiet about suicide, we are doing nothing to help generate solutions. Because of how our society tends to view people with mental health problems, including suicidal thinking, people who do have suicidal thoughts are often hesitant to ask for help.

    By keeping quiet about suicide, we are doing nothing to help generate solutions.

    By encouraging open talk about suicide and by being more compassionate and accepting of individuals who struggle with suicidal thinking, we will be more effective in suicide prevention efforts on the whole.
  6. You have also been very vocal about the #WayForward campaign. Can you tell us a little bit about the message of this campaign?
    The Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention put together a Suicide Attempt Survivor Task Force which created a paper entitled, “The Way Forward, Pathways to Hope, Recovery and Wellness with Insights from Lived Expertise.” The paper emphasizes certain core values for how to support suicide attempt survivors with an emphasis on how these values can be supported in broader settings (policies, programs, practices). The main goal of the Way Forward movement is to incorporate personal lived experience of recovery and resilience into research, policy, and practice.
  7. You mentioned Craig Miller’s personal memoir, This is How it Feels, as an important contributor to your research. How exactly have Craig and his memoir helped you with your work?
    Joanna Almeida and I recently asked Craig to help us with Project LISTEN – specifically, he has been contributing his expertise in the creation of our interview guide that we will be using to structure our interviews with teens who have attempted suicide. He is an expert with lived experience who has helped us to examine the content and wording of our interview guide to make sure it is comprehensive and succinct.
  8. You have also spoken about the significant role that media plays in reporting suicide and the impact that it has on impressionable viewers. Given the current conversation about suicide happening in the mainstream media, what do you think is the best way we should communicate real cases of suicide and suicide survival?

There is a lot of thought that goes into successful suicide messaging and reporting. I would advise readers to check out the following two websites:

  1. The Action Alliance’s framework for successful messaging
  2. Steven Stack’s recent op-ed on the influence of media reporting on future suicides