Experts at suicide awareness conference highlight the brain’s role in depression

Victoria Arango of Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry addresses a crowd at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital on Sept. 9.
(Photo by Matt Sanderson)

A conference held in conjunction with Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day drew mental health professionals and lay people to USC Verdugo Hills Hospital where they learned about the biology of the suicidal brain, how genetics are involved, and ways one can support a deeply depressed individual.

The Sept. 9 event, which carried the theme, “Shattering the Silence,” was the hospital’s second annual Suicide Awareness and Prevention Conference, and attendance was up this year.

“It’s an issue that’s so important to the community,” said Keith Hobbs, chief executive of the Verdugo Boulevard facility, who noted there were a lot of new faces in the gathering this year. “Last year we had such a large turnout that we knew we needed to make it an annual event. When we put the date together and put it online for reservations a few weeks ago, it sold out again.”

The six-hour seminar began with an address from Kevin Briggs, a retired California Highway Patrol sergeant who spent more than 17 years patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge. He said that during those years he encountered hundreds of people who were troubled and planning to jump off the bridge. As a trained negotiator, Briggs said he used compassion, eye contact, a gentle voice and the technique of “listening to understand,” when he encountered those contemplating suicide. Over the years he encouraged more than 200 people to back away from precarious situations on the bridge.

Dr. Victoria Arango, professor of neurobiology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, spoke about the role of the suicidal gene. She received her doctorate in neuroscience from the State University of New York and in 1985, she pioneered anatomical studies in the brain of people who died by suicide, studies that she continued at the Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic at the University of Pittsburgh as well as at Columbia. Her research focuses on examining brain neurotransmitter alterations in individuals who died by suicide and the effect of alcohol dependence on those systems.

“In suicide studies it is usual to ignore biology, but we need to make biology a part of it,” Arango said, noting she is vulnerable since there is a family history of suicide. “I am at risk and have to seek help. It’s the same as having a history of cardiovascular disease.”

Luke Jackson, clinical program director of USC Verdugo’s Stepping Stones program, organized the conference, which included scheduling Briggs, Arango, Shawn Silverstein, lead clinical psychologist at the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center; Robert Gamboa, board member of the city of West Hollywood’s Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board; and Lisa Klein, award-winning director and writer whose current project “The S Word” was shown during the afternoon portion of the conference.

“For years it’s been stigmatized,” Jackson said in an interview during the lunch break. “There’s evidence of [suicidal inclinations] being a disease. With the loss of neurons, the brain is not capable to protect itself. It’s just accepting that suicide is in fact a disease and not a lack of willpower. There’s lot of social-biological parts.”

Silverstein’s talk focused on helping a suicide survivor recover, while Gamboa spoke about the role of gender and sexual identity in depression and suicide.

Mirna Orihuela, a post-acute care coordinator at College Medical Center in Long Beach who attended this year’s conference said she found it very interesting and informative.

“We have a lot of patients who come to the ER who are depressed or suicidal,” she said. “We have a high population of people who need help.”

Matt Sanderson is a contributing writer to Times Community News.