Miami researchers to test suicide prevention tool at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base

Student Highlights

The REDS Lab initial interoceptive research and pilot study includes extensive work by Lauren Forest, a fifth-year clinical PhD student, and Robert White, a psychology undergraduate.

By Shavon Anderson, university news and communications
Suicide rates for active duty military members continue to increase, now surpassing those of civilians. As the U.S. Department of Defense searches to understand why and what can be done to prevent military deaths, Miami University researchers have been tapped to contribute their recent work.

The REDS (Research on Eating Disorders and Suicidality) lab at Miami, led by April Smith, associate professor of psychology, recently received two grants from the Department of Defense, totaling more than $1.5 million. One grant oversees the testing of a suicide intervention program designed for service members at both Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Joint Base Lewis McChord. The second grant funds a project aimed at understanding symptoms of suicidal ideation at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Interoception and suicide: what the body tells us

Over the past five years, Smith’s team explored the link between interoception and suicide. Interoception is a construct that refers to the overall awareness of the body’s physiological sensations. It encompasses sensations like hunger and fullness, emotions and pain sensitivity.

“Within the military culture, there can be a sense of needing to suppress emotions and pain for the success of a mission,” Smith said. “But if that continues even after a service member returns home, that can further disconnect someone from their body.”

Research finds that people who attempt suicide have worse interoception, or interoceptive deficits, compared to those who haven’t. The lack of self-awareness leads people to view their bodies as an object instead of a living thing, making it easier to self-harm.

Smith’s team also discovered that people who attempted suicide multiple times have greater deficits than those who attempted once, providing insight into who might be at more risk.

Using the findings, Smith developed a training intervention program to increase body awareness and decrease suicidal ideation. The intervention consists of four online modules that explore emotional awareness, intuitive eating, body awareness and functionality and mindfulness.

Pilot testing shows that compared to a control condition; people who participated in the intervention showed decreased propensity for suicide.

“People who received components of our intervention found the idea of suicide more aversive, indicating that our intervention may make it more difficult for someone to attempt it,” Smith said.

April Smith, associate professor of psychology, with members of the REDS lab at Miami.

April Smith (center front), associate professor of psychology, with members of the REDS lab at Miami (photo by April Smith).

Starting in September, volunteer testing for the online intervention will be available at both Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Joint Base Lewis McChord. Funding allows for 132 total service members to participate in the online intervention and in follow-up studies over two years.

Exploring suicide symptoms and triggers

In addition to the online suicide intervention program, Smith’s team received funding to explore a potentially new disorder called acute suicidal affective disturbance, which identifies people at their highest risk right before a suicide attempt.
The funding covers a two-year study exclusively at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. There, Smith’s team plans to recruit 100 service members who identify as suicidal and track them for 30 days. Each day, participants will complete four surveys documenting their emotional states and daily tasks.
Through the results, Smith’s team can develop individualized profiles for each person in the study to pinpoint central factors that contribute to their suicidal triggers.
“We might be able to say that for John, when he has a bout of insomnia, we see that the next day his suicidal ideation increases,” Smith said. “Whereas for Mary, her symptoms increase after a fight with her partner.”
After the end of the 30-day study, the data profiles will be shared with participants’ mental health provider and monitored to see if the information leads to better outcomes.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number 1-800-273-TALK (8255) is a free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.