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‘My passion runs more deeply’


This week’s post features excerpts from an interview with Kimberly O’Brien, a professor at Simmons School of Social Work and Harvard Medical School who is using her personal experience to inform her work. The SocialWork@Simmons blog published the full interview last month and invited us to share it, “to help contextualize how talking about suicide and sharing stories makes a significant impact.” Kimberly also uses the chance to promote the recently released report “The Way Forward,” a federally funded project by a national attempt survivor task force that demands sweeping change. (She even made a video to support it.)

Here are excerpts from her interview:

I have been on the Simmons College faculty since July 2013. Simmons has been such an incredible fit for me – the school has given me the freedom to pursue my passion for intervention development for suicidal and substance abusing teens. I have been able to continue my collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital in a research capacity and, in the short time I have been here, get three intervention studies off the ground.

The primary course I teach is Assessment & Diagnosis, typically given in the spring of the first year. I absolutely love teaching this course – the process of assessment with clients is like a puzzle, putting all the pieces together. I love helping students to figure out how to do this. I am currently developing the online version of this course for SocialWork@Simmons, which has been a ton of work but so much fun. Simmons has also supported me in my development and implementation of the Motivational Interviewing course in the MSW program, which we piloted this summer as an elective, and we will continue to teach ongoing. Also, Dr. Joanna Almeida and I are co-developing a course tentatively called Understanding Suicide, which we will pilot this spring as an elective in the program.

Suicide is a pervasive problem, especially in youth – in the U.S., it is the third leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults. The seriousness of this problem is not matched by proportionate prevention and intervention efforts. While this alone inspires my everyday work, my passion runs more deeply than what the statistics say. Having experienced a friend die by suicide in college, and having had suicidal thinking myself in my younger years, I feel very connected to the problem of suicidality, and committed to suicide prevention.

I have three projects that I am currently getting off the ground, and one that is still in the preparation stage. The first is a pilot study of a smartphone application intervention called Crisis Care that I co-developed with Dr. Elizabeth Wharff and Dr. Jason Kahn of Boston Children’s Hospital. We are currently testing the acceptability and usability of a web-based prototype of Crisis Care, which is designed for adolescents and their caregivers to use in a suicidal crisis to access a set of personalized coping skills and have immediate access to outside professional help and consultation if needed.

The second is Project ASIST – this project is testing a brief alcohol intervention for adolescents who have attempted suicide that I co-developed with my postdoctoral mentor, Dr. Anthony Spirito. The intervention is based on motivational interviewing principles and is designed to be implemented in inpatient psychiatric units.

The third study I am working on is Project LISTEN – this is a project I co-developed with Dr. Joanna Almeida and Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The aim of this study is to understand the preparatory thoughts, behaviors and decision-making processes of adolescents who have attempted suicide. This study will obtain data via qualitative interviews with adolescents in the days after they have attempted suicide. No findings yet for any of these projects – we are literally just starting them!

Joanna Almeida and I recently asked Craig Miller to help us with Project LISTEN – specifically, he has been contributing his expertise in the creation of our interview guide that we will be using to structure our interviews with teens who have attempted suicide. He is an expert with lived experience who has helped us to examine the content and wording of our interview guide to make sure it is comprehensive and succinct.

Suicide is a huge problem facing our society. By keeping quiet about suicide, we are doing nothing to help generate solutions. Because of how our society tends to view people with mental health problems, including suicidal thinking, people who do have suicidal thoughts are often hesitant to ask for help. By encouraging open talk about suicide and by being more compassionate and accepting of individuals who struggle with suicidal thinking, we will be more effective in suicide prevention efforts on the whole.

2 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. I agree that by keeping quiet we are doing nothing to find new ways for society to address suicide and suicidal thinking. I am coming up on one year of survival from a suicide attempt and hospitalization. Only a few of my closest friends know that this occurred, even though many know that suicidal ideation has been a recurrent issue through my teens and twenties. The closer I get to the one year mark that I have worked so hard to reach the more it strikes me that unlike celebrating a year of sobriety, it is socially unacceptable to publicly celebrate my achievement and acknowledge my struggles. There is a part of me that would really like to make this public- this struggle has been a huge part of my identity for many years and it saddens me that I cannot share what I view as a major shift in my perspective towards myself and maintaining my life. This issue is very complicated- but perhaps someone here is in the same boat or could share some thoughts.


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