University of Oklahoma receives $38 million grant for suicide prevention

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Dolores Subia BigFoot, Ph.D.

NORMAN, Okla. (KFOR) – The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center has received a massive, multi-million dollar grant to fund suicide prevention.

OU Health Sciences Center was awarded the five-year, $38 million grant to lead and expand a national program dedicated to suicide prevention.

Dolores Subia BigFoot, Ph.D., a professor in the OU College of Medicine and a longtime researcher and organizer of suicide prevention efforts, will lead suicide prevention efforts using grant funding, according to a University of Oklahoma news release.

Suicide prevention has always been a priority for the mental health community, but has become a more pressing concern as Americans deal with increased stressors caused by the “COVID-19 pandemic and its economic toll, as well as racial injustice and inequality,” according to the news release.

“We’re coming into this at a very important time,” BigFoot said. “We’re in a new era in which the suicide risk may increase. We want to increase our resources and grow a network of safety for people at risk of suicide.”

BigFoot and her team will use the five-year grant to further the work of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, an organization funded by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, according to the news release.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that more than 48,000 people in the United States died by suicide in 2018, and that the suicide rate increased 35 percent from 1999 to 2018.

Although suicide is complex and requires a multifaceted approach, BigFoot says it is preventable.

“Education, evidence-based prevention strategies and public awareness are among the tools to help people who are considering taking their own lives,” the news release states.

People living in domestic violence situations, individuals who face poverty and persistent inequality, the elderly and people who live in rural communities are among those at higher risk of suicide, according to the news release.

LGBTQ+ community members and ethnic minority members, such as American Indians and Alaskan Natives, are also at higher risk of suicide, the news release states.

“By combining her medical knowledge and deep understanding of Native culture, Dr. Dee Bigfoot has expertly developed culturally responsive treatments to better serve Indigenous populations, who unfortunately face significant inequities in health care, including proper mental health support,” said OU President Joseph Harroz Jr. “This transformative grant will amplify the scope of her important work across tribes and other vulnerable groups, literally saving lives and preserving communities and cultures.”

Suicide is rarely an action that suddenly happens, according to BigFoot.

“Suicide may be an individual act, but it is the final act of something that has led to that point,” she said. “We need to continue to understand the dynamics that come into play – trauma, substance misuse, mental illness, family conditions. People have such a burden of mental anguish that they perceive suicide as being the only way to stop the pain. We need to understand that everyone who is suicidal is struggling with something on a regular basis. It’s not there one day and gone tomorrow.”

BigFoot will address workforce development, which involves training people in settings where they have regular opportunities to talk about suicide risk, including clinics, hospitals, schools and colleges, and making suicide screening part of standard practice.

People need to become comfortable with asking someone if they’re thinking about harming themselves, and overcome the myth that speaking about suicide increases the likelihood that someone will carry it out, BigFoot said.

Suicide prevention also focuses upon children, who are also vulnerable to suicidal thoughts at ages as young as four or five years old, BigFoot said.

“Children may not be capable of carrying out suicide at a young age, but if they continue having thoughts of suicide as they get older, they are increasingly capable of completing the act,” the news release states. “Prevention entails helping parents and intervening when children are facing neglect or harm.”

Young people also help shed light on suicide prevention, said Beverly Funderburk, Ph.D., an OU College of Medicine professor who is co-leading the grant with BigFoot.

“An important part of this effort is to incorporate the knowledge and voice of at-risk young people and have them be part of the solution,” Funderburk said. “For young people, it’s often much easier to talk about suicide risk when they hear about it from their peers.”

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