Conference Review: American Association of Suicidology 50th Annual Conference

By Donna Littlewood.


A record-breaking 1400 people attended the 50th annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology in Phoenix, Arizona. The conference successfully attracts a diverse range of delegates, including researchers, clinicians, crisis centre volunteers, people bereaved by suicide, and people with lived experience of suicide. In coming together with the common goal of suicide prevention, the conference had a very humbling atmosphere, where academic hierarchies have no place, and each person’s viewpoint holds equal weight.

During her opening address, the incoming President Dr Julie Cerel noted that despite the many successes over the past 50 years since the Association’s inception, the suicide rate has risen in the US across the previous decades (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2016). She called for delegates to focus on innovation, decreasing stigma and increasing communication with people outside of those working towards suicide prevention.

The conference programme commenced, with a series of plenary’s and TED style talks in the morning, before breaking into symposium and paper presentations in the afternoon.

Image: David Covington delivering The story of Ebola and what it means for suicide prevention. Image credit: @CarlDunnJr via Twitter.

One of my personal highlights was a TED talk from Dr David Covington, who took to the stage in a full hamzat suit to tell the story of the fear that spread across the US relating to the Ebola virus. Dr Covington argued for the need to spread stories of courage, rather than fear, by shining a light on the stories of people who have survived suicide attempts, and found the courage to continue. This focus on changing the narrative from preventing death to promoting life, struck a chord with me. My own research seeks to understand how poor sleep acts as a risk factor for suicide, and in that sense, is reflective of the largely risk-based approach research takes to preventing suicide. However, throughout the conference there was a compelling argument to re-address the balance by partially shifting focus to developing understanding of resilience and how people find meaning and reasons for living after suicidal experiences. A good example of this is the ‘Live Through This’ project which is a collection of stories of suicide attempts, as told by the survivors. The project was created by a fellow survivor and psychology graduate, Dese’Rae L. Stage, who is now working with researchers at the University of Louisville to conductive qualitative analysis on the interviews. The main aims of this analysis is to understand how people make sense of their attempt, and how they find positive changes following an attempt. The importance of finding meaning was also emphasised in a plenary by Dr Robert Neimeyer, whose work includes the experience of grief amongst those bereaved by suicide. His work has illustrated how difficulties in finding meaning fully mediates the relationship between suicide loss and complicated grief. Furthermore, he has developed therapeutic interventions focused on helping people construct meaning during the grief process.

Finally, I was grateful for the opportunity to present findings from two empirical studies, conducted as part of my PhD programme. The scheduling gods assigned my oral communication to ‘Predictors of suicide risk’ which was held in one of the larger break-out rooms, drawing an audience of around a hundred people. As much as I would like to believe that they were all there to hear about my latest work into sleep and suicide, the opening speaker was Professor Thomas Elli, a prominent clinician and researcher whose books and journal publications have focused on evidence-based psychotherapeutic interventions for suicide prevention. My presentation focused on an experience sampling methodology (ESM) study which examined the bi-directional relationship between objective and subjective sleep parameters and suicidal thoughts. ESM refers to the real-time, repeated collection of data points multiple times each day over a specific time-period. This methodology has been under-utilised in suicide research, which is surprising given that suicidal thoughts are known to fluctuate (e.g., Witte et al., 2005). Following the presentation, I was approached by early careers researchers from different institutions across the US, keen to hear more about developing and conducting ESM studies. I am hopeful that these contacts may lead to future collaborations. At the poster session, I presented mixed-methods research on the short and long-term impact of participating in suicide research. In accordance with previous work (e.g., Biddle et al., 2013), participation in suicide-related research is generally associated with more positive than negative outcomes. In addition, we showed that positive outcomes can be enduring, with participants reporting increased self-understanding and a personal sense of altruism, five to 13 months after participation. This work spoke more broadly to the wide range of researchers in attendance, but also to those who were representing the work of crisis contact centres.

The conference was truly an invaluable experience. As I approach the end of my PhD, it allowed me to disseminate and answer questions on two research studies which felt like good preparation for my viva voce. It also gave me a wider understanding of the differences between the UK and US research environments, which will serve me well should I manage to turn any of my new contacts into collaborators in the future.



I would like to thank PsyPAG for supporting my attendance at AAS17 through their International Conference Bursary Award.


Biddle, L., Cooper, J., Owen-Smith, A., Klineberg, E., Bennewith, O., Hawton, K., … & Gunnell, D. (2013). Qualitative interviewing with vulnerable populations: Individuals’ experiences of participating in suicide and self-harm based research. Journal of Affective Disorders145(3), 356-362.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016). Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Retrieved 9th August 2016, from.

Witte, T. K., Fitzpatrick, K. K., Joiner, T. E., & Schmidt, N. B. (2005). Variability in suicidal ideation: a better predictor of suicide attempts than intensity or duration of ideation?. Journal of Affective Disorders88(2), 131-136.


Donna Littlewood (@donnalittlewood) is a psychologist, MRes Psychology, and PhD researcher within the Division of Psychology & Mental Health, University of Manchester (

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