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September 2016

RAND Gulf States Policy Institute

From the Director

Two family members comfort one another

Photo by halfpoint/iStock

The autumn issue of our newsletter deals with an especially somber topic: suicide. I hope that you will continue to read; I want to share how RAND Gulf States is making a difference with a unique kind of investigation. The information we find in this New Orleans-based study will ultimately help us understand why some people choose suicide and what individuals and communities can do to improve prevention.

As you might know, suicide rates, especially for men, have been increasing nationwide and particularly in Louisiana. In New Orleans, for example, there were 50 reported suicides in 2014, the last year for which we have data. In 2013, the number was only half that.

A RAND Gulf States study team is working with local partners to understand the reasons for this increase. The researchers are conducing "psychological autopsies" of New Orleans suicide victims. These are systematic post mortem investigations that include a review of the official report, as well as interviews with next of kin or peers of the decedents.

I admit that I was initially a bit skeptical when I was told that psychological autopsies entail knocking on the doors of suicide victims' families and asking them questions. But any doubt was quickly set aside as I realized three things.

First, the RAND team has deep expertise in this area. The project is led by one of the nation's foremost suicide researchers, RAND psychiatric epidemiologist, Dr. Rajeev Ramchand. Rajeev shared the project's early findings with me recently. If you knew Rajeev like I do, you'd see his rare, compassionate talent to get folks to talk about such a sensitive topic to help prevent future tragedies and sadness. Also, the project is fortunate to have as a manager Elizabeth Voigt Thornton, a community outreach expert at RAND Gulf States who lives in and is from this area.

Second, our partners bring so much to this project. RAND Gulf States often works closely with local partners who make a difference with their unique data sets, local knowledge, and special capabilities. For this project, we are collaborating with Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the coroner for Orleans Parish, for his expertise and to collect critical local data. We are also working with Enchanté Franklin, a Forensic Social Worker, a former New Orleans Police Department officer, and current second year Ph.D. candidate at the Whitney M. Young Jr., School of Social Work at Clark Atlanta University. Enchanté is the lead interviewer and has discussed some of her experiences with us.

Finally, RAND makes sensitive projects like this possible. This is a RAND-funded project, and RAND is committed to tackling questions that might be too big, complex, or new for a client to address. In this case, the possible involvement of guns precludes most federal funding that might be warranted to conduct this research.

Of course, the investigation of suicide in New Orleans sadly represents only a fraction of the national problem. But what we learn here can inform the rest of the nation about the disturbing upward trend in suicide. Also, our work here has led to new research in other places, including a new research project about suicides among law enforcement officers, which we will tell you more about in 2017.

As always, reach out to me if you have any questions about this or any projects conducted at RAND Gulf States Policy Institute.

All the best,

Gary Cecchine

Researcher Spotlight

Q&A with Senior Behavioral and Social Scientist Rajeev Ramchand

Rajeev Ramchand

See below for an excerpt from our discussion with a member of the RAND team, Rajeev Ramchand. We asked Rajeev about his work in gathering information about suicide victims through "psychological autopsies." He discusses the goals of the study, its potential impact in New Orleans and beyond, and highlights what the team has learned early on in this study.

1. Can you tell us how this project came about?

I have been studying suicide since 2008. I took a three-day course in conducting psychological autopsies, sponsored by the American Association of Suicidology, and was interested in the role that firearms and firearm storage practices play in suicide. The director of the RAND Gulf States Policy Institute knew of my interest and told me about Dr. Rouse, the newly elected coroner for Orleans Parish. Dr. Rouse and I met; I was really impressed with his commitment to public health, and he was really open to our idea to conduct this type of study in New Orleans.

2. Why is RAND funding this study specifically?

Since 1996, research on firearms has been sparse in the United States, due largely to an essential moratorium on funding for this type of research. This is also a time period characterized by increases in suicides. Twice in 2013, the president announced executive actions to reduce gun violence, including more research on ways such violence can be prevented. Federal agencies are only slowly beginning to fund this work. By funding this work in New Orleans, RAND is helping to fill this gap.

3. What are the primary goals of this project?

Our primary objective is to better understand the epidemiology of suicide in New Orleans. We hope that, from this information, we can identify potential policies or practices that might minimize the risk of future suicides. This might include recommending better coordination of mental health care across parish agencies or media campaigns or policies that address firearm access and storage.

4. What is it like as a researcher to interview surviving families?

Talking to loss survivors is one of the most rewarding and critical activities in this research. We learned so much from them, and they often appreciate that their experience can be used to help prevent future suicide deaths. That said, because I am based in Washington, D.C., Enchanté Franklin is the lead interviewer. We're so lucky to have found Enchantéand have her as part of the team.

Want to learn more? Read the full Q&A with Rajeev on the RAND Gulf States website. You can also learn more about psychological autopsies and the experience of interviewing families in our Q&A session with the study's lead interviewer, Enchanté Franklin.

The RAND Gulf States Policy Institute provides objective analysis to federal, state, and local leaders in support of evidence-based policymaking and the well-being of individuals throughout the U.S. Gulf States region. We invite your suggestions for researchers, projects, centers, and funding or collaboration opportunities to highlight in future issues. Write to director Gary Cecchine at Gary_Cecchine@rand.org.

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