Columbia Study Aims to Help Survivors of Suicide Loss

Research paves the way for interventions to facilitate the grief process

For every life lost to suicide, there are dozens of loved ones reeling in the aftermath. Those left behind report that the intensity and range of emotions they face are like nothing they’ve ever experienced: shame, guilt, social stigma, and blame, especially from other family members, for not being able to prevent the suicide in the first place.

Noam Schneck, PhD, assistant professor of clinical medical psychology (in psychiatry) at Columbia, who studies the way people adapt to the suicide loss of a loved one, says that many suicide survivors find themselves stuck, unable to move forward from the loss.

“There remains much to be learned about how people bereaved by suicide can grow and recover,” says Dr. Schneck. “I believe that if we can understand how some survivors are able to cope with devastating loss and even gain a level of acceptance, we could develop interventions that will help others and achieve long-term growth and wellness.”

Dr. Schneck, who works alongside Dr. J. John Mann, a leading expert in suicide, embarked on a study, Survive Together, to explore the unique intersection between pain and resilience. "There are a lot of people studying depression and trauma, but I found myself intrigued with finding a better understanding of how people deal with extreme pain, and how human resilience can rise to meet those extremely difficult situations,” Dr. Schneck says.

The first six months, a feeling that the pain may never go away

Survive Together, which has been funded by National Institutes of Health since 2018, aims to identify unconscious processes of coping with loss that help people grow and adapt. Its ultimate goal is to develop more effective treatment for those grieving, who are at heightened risk for suicide themselves, either because of genetics or because of unbearable pain.

“It’s the first six months after losing a loved one to suicide that’s really the most dynamic period of grief, also known as the acute grieving phase,” Dr. Schneck says. “Behavior patterns that develop during these early months can set the course for the rest of the grieving process.” This is why participants of the Survive Together study must have experienced loss of a loved one to suicide within the past five months to be eligible. Another requirement is for the loved one to have been a first-degree family member (sibling, child, or parent) or partner or spouse.

‘The neural signature’: A blueprint for grief

At the outset of the study, participants are asked to identify a living loved one, which serves as the study’s control. MRI scans are conducted as participants share stories and photos about both the living and deceased person while researchers observe what’s happening in the brain. The “neural signature” that’s captured from the MRI reveals what the brain looks like when the participant is thinking about their lost loved one and is monitored over time to assess how quickly some participants process their grief versus others.

One perhaps not-so-surprising yet key finding is that approximately study participants often claim not to be thinking about their loved one even while their neural signature indicates that they are.

This type of thinking about the loss which happens outside of conscious awareness—which Dr. Schneck dubs the “unconscious processing of loss”—turns out to be a predictor of healthy grieving, setting up individuals for future stability and the resumption of normal pleasures of life. “Unconscious loss processing during early grief appears to support growth and wellness in the wake of the loss,” Dr. Schneck says. 

Hope for new treatments

So far, Dr. Schneck has studied roughly 40 participants and hopes to enroll a third group beginning in May 2023. His goal is to develop treatment using neurofeedback that speeds up unconscious processing and gives them greater resilience in dealing with loss in the future. 

“The yearning will never go away but helping people learn to process the pain in a way that makes them stronger is my ultimate dream for my work,” Dr. Schneck says. 

For additional information about the study, please follow this link to learn more. Participants do not need to live in New York City.

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