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New treatments, advocacy to better prevent suicide

Every 40 seconds someone in the world dies of suicide, and every 41 seconds someone is left to make sense of it. The sobering facts are part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's awareness campaign that includes sponsoring Out of the Darkness walks across the nation.

It's a cause MUSC's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and the Institute of Psychiatry is working hard to support.

Tom Robinson, business development manager in the Institute of Psychiatry, said 200 people have committed suicide in Charleston County alone since 2008. Suicide is the third highest cause of death for young people ages 15-24. "No one is immune. This tragedy strikes all ages, races, genders – even health professionals. Many of these deaths could have been prevented."

Suicide facts

  • Every 14.6 minutes someone in the United States dies by suicide.
  • Nearly 1 million people make a suicide attempt every year.
  • Ninety percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.
  • Women attempt suicide three times as often as men. Men are nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women.

Thomas Uhde, M.D., chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and executive director of the Institute of Psychiatry, said that depression is a very serious medical disorder with high levels of morbidity and mortality. "The tremendous advances MUSC scientists have made in managing treatment-resistant depression have made us one of only 21 depression centers designated by the National Network of Depression Centers," he said.

The innovations being developed and refined at MUSC include:
--transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS);
--epidural cortical stimulation;
--vagus nerve and deep brain stimulation;
--Focal Electrically-Administered Seizure Therapy (FEAST) of which MUSC is the only facility in the world offering this therapy and;
--treatments at the MUSC Sleep Disorders Program that help patients suffering from depression and PTSD, and the often related difficulties sleeping that aggravate those conditions.

The National Institute of Mental Health offers some warning signs of suicide, among them: poor self esteem, changes in sleeping or eating patterns, anger, reckless behavior and not wanting to participate in social activities that used to be important.

Connie Guille, M.D., psychiatrist, MUSC Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences/Institute of Psychiatry, said one approach to reducing suicide is reducing both an individual's inclination and opportunity to self-harm. People can be inclined toward taking their lives based on risk factors that include depression, trauma and substance abuse, but there is no surefire way to predict who or when a person might attempt suicide given that this behavior is often an impulsive act, she said.

Until the phenomenon of suicide is better understood, the current best course of action is to decrease inclination to self-harm by first identifying who is at risk via screening and minimize the risk through effective treatment strategies. For those at risk, it's also important to reduce the opportunity to end their life especially during a time when an individual is highly inclined to harm themselves. If family members, friends or treatment providers suspect that a person is at risk, they should take immediate steps. Removing weapons and prescription drugs from the house, staying with the person until they can get professional help and demonstrating genuine concern are successful techniques.

Harriet Cooney, R.N., clinical director of the Institute of Psychiatry, said that safety is the No. 1 priority for patients in the hospital. MUSC maintains a high staff-to-patient ratio. All psychiatric patients are routinely assessed for suicide risk. Those on suicide precaution receive a more intense level of monitoring until the attending psychiatrist and treatment team judge the patient to be safe.

Robinson said few people are comfortable talking about mental illness and suicide. "All of us can help de-stigmatize these significant issues by learning more, increasing awareness and advocating for resources to mitigate them. It was not too long ago that cancer was kept under the table. Today, pink ribbons are ubiquitous. We can change what's possible."

Want to Join the Walk?
The Out of Darkness Walk will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Nov. 6 at Hampton Park. There will be a brief program before the one-mile walk. For more information, visit

For more information on the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, visit



Friday, Nov. 4, 2011

The Catalyst Online is published weekly by the MUSC Office of Public Relations for the faculty, employees and students of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Catalyst Online editor, Kim Draughn, can be reached at 792-4107 or by email, Editorial copy can be submitted to The Catalyst Online and to The Catalyst in print by fax, 792-6723, or by email to To place an ad in The Catalyst hardcopy, call Island Publications at 849-1778, ext. 201.