Groundbreaking suicide research


By: Caroline Whitlow
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: JMU Students and Faculty

Harvell-Bowman, Critchfield and Ndzana prepare for their interview ‘dress rehearsal’ with their undergraduate research team.

Three JMU researchers have launched a groundbreaking study that will look at suicidality from a new perspective, extending limited literature on the topic and reducing stigma in the process.  Lindsey Harvell-Bowman, Ken Critchfield and Jean Fabrice Ndzana are working across disciplines to study how students experiencing thoughts of taking their own lives cope with traditional death anxiety.

The idea for the study came from Harvell-Bowman’s work in existential psychology.  Working within the communication studies department and as an affiliate in the department of psychology, the professor dedicates her research to the Terror Management Theory (TMT) lab.  TMT explains the duality that humans experience as they work to thrive in life while knowing that eventual death is inevitable. 

“Most people think it’s ‘the death theory,’ but it’s a theory about living,” said Harvell-Bowman.  “TMT looks at how humans deal with the juxtaposition of this evolutionary desire to live and the knowledge that they are going to die.  That tension creates anxiety, and humans have to find ways to deal with that anxiety.”

For about five years, Harvell-Bowman wondered about the experiences of individuals with suicidal thoughts and how those thoughts integrate with death anxiety.  No literature on that interplay existed.

“From a theoretical standpoint, it is huge.  It expands the terror management model in a nontraditional way,” said Harvell-Bowman, who decided she would begin research on the stigmatized yet imperative topic herself.

Two clinical specialists joined the project, graduate psychology professor Ken Critchfield and graduate psychology student, Jean Fabrice Ndzana.  The pair was drawn to the study by both its new approach and pertinence to college undergraduates.

“The counseling center noted that for every one percent increase in the JMU population, we have a five percent increase in students who seek counseling services,” said Ndzana.  “And out of those who seek counseling services here, about a third of them have had thoughts of suicide.”

Critchfield found interest in potential implications for clinical practitioners like himself.

“As we have these conversations and people are able to come and talk to us, we learn that not all suicidal contexts are the same, and we learn the strategies that people have for getting through that,” said Critchfield.  “Knowing something about the diversity of experience people have will help clinicians not be so stereotyped in their view of those with suicidal thoughts.”

Preparations for the study began last winter as the team began designing ethical research methodology.  Harvell-Bowman spoke with university legal counsel, risk management, the dean of the College of Health and Behavioral Studies, and the provost, all the while revising her research plan and interview questions to ensure maximum safety for participants.

In order to make participants feel comfortable, interviews for the study were conducted in an informal atmosphere.  Psychology students met volunteers at the door, offering water and assuring participants that there would be no disruptions.

“Overall, people left happier than they came in,” said Harvell-Bowman.  Speaking with nonjudgmental faculty allowed students to come to terms with their experiences and reduce the stigma they may feel.  It also helped reveal that they are not alone.

“What’s been particularly striking is that it wasn’t difficult to find participants for the study.  There’s a pretty high base rate of suicidal ideation in the lives of college undergraduates,” said Critchfield.  “Folks have had a lot of experience having to think about life and death and having to navigate through wanting to take their own life.”

Ndzana hopes that by studying the diversity of experience with suicidal ideation, clinicians will be able to develop effective recovery plans that begin with the root of the problem.

“We often focus on death, but death is just an event on a continuum. To the suicidal mind, death is not the major concern; death is not merely a  desire to end life, but a desire to live a better life.  People want something better, either for themselves or those they would leave behind,” said Ndzana.  “In terms of the benefits of this study,  we are looking at emerging themes; at meaning, to identify buffers and vulnerabilities, and potentially develop a better contextual framework, or at least for further research.”

Interviews concluded on Friday, Nov. 3.  Researchers are now focusing on data analysis.  More information on TMT can be found in Harvell-Bowman’s book Denying Death: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Terror Management Theory.

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Published: Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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