Suicidology and Adolescent Suicide Prevention [transcript][audio]

Guest: Karl Andriessen

Presenter: Tabetha Moreto

Guest Bio: Karl Andriessen is an Anika Foundation PhD Student at the University of New South Wales. He has been working in suicide prevention and postvention nationally and internationally for three decades, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the UNSW School of Psychiatry, supported by a research grant of the Anika Foundation for Adolescent Depression and Suicide. He co-chaired the Special Interest Group on Suicide Bereavement of the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP) for fifteen years, and received the 2005 IASP Farberow Award for outstanding contributions in the field of bereavement after suicide, the 2017 AISRAP Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award, and the 2017 Outstanding Alumni of the Year Award, Health Faculty, Griffith University Brisbane.

Segment Overview: In today’s interview, Karl Andriessen of UNSW talks about the complex nature of suicidology, the scientific study of suicidal behaviour and suicide prevention. He also discusses about how to improve the mental health of suicidal teenagers.

TRANSCRIPT – Suicide Prevention

Tabetha Moreto: Hello everyone, welcome to Health Professional Radio. I’m your host for today Tabetha Moreto. Our guest today is Karl Andriessen, an Anika Foundation PhD student at the University of New South Wales. He has been working on suicide prevention and postvention nationally and internationally for three decades now and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of New South Wales School of Psychiatry supported by a research grant of the Anika Foundation for adolescent depression and suicide. Today we’re going to talk about how to improve the mental health especially in teenagers and young people. Without further ado, welcome to the show Karl. I’m so glad you can join us today.

Karl Andriessen: Yes, thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me.

T: Yes. My pleasure. So Karl, can you please tell the audience more about yourself and the work that you do?

K: Well, as you say, we are doing a study about the grief mental health and help-seeking experiences of adolescents. And we are looking specifically at the experiences that young people had when they were 12 to 18 years old and we are looking at this specific age group because most of the studies about bereavement have been done with adult populations and not with the younger age groups. And we believed that there are may be specific characteristics among younger people who are more specific for younger age compared to adult populations.

T: I see. That’s very interesting. Now, can you tell us, this is very interesting for me, ‘Suicidology’. To tell you the truth Karl, I never heard about this before. So can you please explain to me and the audience, what is this all about?

K: Well, the word ‘Suicidology’ refers to the scientific study of suicide and suicidal behavior. So the word was coined I believe in the 1950s or the 1960s in the United States. But now it has been used more globally, internationally by people who are involved in the research of suicidal behavior or the bereavement after suicide.

T: I see. Thank you for explaining that to me. I’m really learning something today because of you. So now Karl, can you explain to me why do people attempt suicide especially teenagers to be exact?

K: Most of the time when young people try to attempt suicide, it’s very often a combination of various factors, it can be that they feel depressed or anxieties. They may feel lonely and disconnected from their family or their friends and usually, there is a very strong feeling of hopelessness and helplessness. So they don’t have any hope that their situation may improve over time or they do not expect any help anymore from their friends or their family, even if they have friends or family that might be there to support them. But in their experience, they don’t believe it anymore so that’s the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness which may drive young people to attempting suicide.

T: I see. That sounds very alarming especially for young people to think about these kinds of thoughts. And anyways, I want to ask you something, let’s go back to suicidology. Can you please explain, aside from suicide prevention, what else do you study when it comes to suicidology?

K: Well another major aspect of the study in suicide related field is what we are doing here is a study of bereavement after suicide. So we’re looking at people who have lost someone by suicide, it can be friends or family members who have died over the last years.

T: Are there any biological factors that can increase the risk for suicide?

K: Yes. Over the last decades, there is an increasing interest from biological studies in suicidal behavior. And what they find is that there is a family risk of suicide so you can see that sometimes in families, more than one person attempt suicide or dies by suicide and this multiple person suicides in one family may be related to a genetic factor for example, a genetic vulnerability that runs in families.

T: Yes. I understand because I’ve also done some research myself that there’s been a lot of interest when it comes to the biological factors that can increase suicide, because a lot of people don’t associate biological factors when it comes to the risk of suicide they usually think it’s just a mental issue, not necessarily a physical issue. But thank you for explaining that to us Karl today. I really appreciate it.

K: Well I think it’s important to know that there is not one single factor that is causing suicide. So usually it is an interplay of different factors – so it can be interpersonal, social factors but it can also be biological and usually the combination of the factors is increasing the risk of suicidal behavior. So when you have a certain family loading of suicide because there have been suicides in family members in the past. And then when other family members may feel depressed, or anxiety, or struggle with substance abuse or with relational issues, then they may become suicidal much faster than people who do not have this biological vulnerability. So it interplays, the combination of different factors that is increasing the risk of suicides.

T: That’s true. I agree with you. That is not just one particular factor that is linked to suicide or suicide attempts. And speaking of factors, does alcohol and drug abuse increase the risk for suicide?

K: Yes. That’s also one of the constant findings in the research, that substance abuse mostly alcohol is also related to suicidal behaviors. Yes, that’s correct.

T: And now let’s talk about misconceptions. Are there any misconceptions regarding suicide or suicidology that you want to clear up on the show today?

K: Well one of the misconceptions still is that when people talk about suicide that they don’t really mean it, that it’s more on attention-seeking. Whereas the research clearly shows that people who talk about suicide or provide other signs, warning signs about suicide, that it’s a very serious matter and that someone else’s family or maybe EGP or health professionals should ask about suicidal ideas and to try to clarify how specific the ideas are about suicide that the person has.

T: Thank you for clearing up those misconceptions. And I agree with you, this is a very serious topic. Unfortunately, a lot of people either don’t understand or they look at suicide like it’s a joke and like what you mentioned earlier, I also agree with you that some people think that people who attempt suicide are just acting crazy or they’re just pretending, which is not true. This is a topic that needs to be understood and people have to approach this in a gentle way instead of looking at it as a joke.

K: Yes, that’s correct. When someone talks about suicide, I think it’s important that you should always ask about it – what a person means, how they think about it because a kind of a general rule is that the more specific the ideas are, the more prepared the person is, the higher the risk for suicide or for attempted suicides.

T: That’s right. Anyways, I want to ask you a personal question if you don’t mind. Why are you so passionate about this particular topic?

K: Well I think it’s difficult not to be touched by suicide or by suicidal behavior. And I think, if you look around in your own life, then you will see that you will remember people who have attempted suicide or died by suicide. So I think many people of us, maybe not everyone but many people of us are affected by suicide and it’s something that becomes very close. Even if you are working as a professional, you can also be touched by suicide in a personal way.

T: I agree with you on that because as we know, mental illness and suicide prevention and suicide itself has become topics of discussion nowadays. And I’m relieved in a way that it’s become more open to the public. Unlike many years ago, this was considered a taboo issue that nobody wanted to talk about because they’re afraid of the stigma that’s attached to these kinds of issues.

K: Yes, I think you’re right. We certainly need more openness about it and then opportunities to talk about suicide and mental health problems because if we are more open about it, it will also allow more people to talk freely about their experiences and maybe helps them to find the support that they need.

T: And I hope that the people who are listening right now will understand more about this topic and hopefully if they know someone who really needs help, they can approach them and tell them that there is hope for everyone despite the fact that they’re going through a difficult situation.

K: Yes, that’s true. And also sometimes it is useful to provide for example the name of certain services like a helpline or Samaritan line to people who are suicidal or who may be suicidal so that they can also find support in an anonymous way. They don’t have to provide their name or their address but maybe they can talk with someone without fear or being judged for example for their ideas.

T: Yes, that’s very good to hear. Now Karl, I’m sorry to tell you we’re almost out of time so before we go, what is your main takeaway message to all of our listeners out there?

K: Well I think an important message is that if you would know someone who is suicidal, that it’s very important that you take time and that you listen to the person and that you try to understand why the person is suicidal and then maybe try to find an alternative solution together. Maybe seek a professional counseling or psychotherapy, it could be helpful for people who are suicidal. And also if you yourself would become distressed or suicidal, it’s also important to share it with other people and see how they can help you.

T: Excellent message Karl. And here’s our last question for today, for anyone who’s interested in suicidology or even suicide prevention, how can they get in touch with you guys?

K: Well there are different ways I think. We have an international organization. So you can find an international organization online, it is called IASP, International Association for Suicide Prevention and the research that we are doing here is at the School of Psychiatry at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, so people can also contact us here if they want.

T: That’s wonderful. Thank You Karl for coming on the show today. I really appreciate it.

K: You’re welcome.

T: And that was Karl Andriessen, PhD student at the University of New South Wales. We have just been talking about suicidology and what can be done to improve the mental health of young people. If you like this interview, transcripts and archives are available at We’re on all social media platforms so don’t forget to follow, like and subscribe. We’re also available for download on SoundCloud and iTunes. I’m Tabetha Moreto and you’re listening to Health Professional Radio.

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