Suicide Research in the Department of Psychiatry

At Pitt Psychiatry, our faculty members conduct cutting-edge research on topics related to suicide across the lifespan. In recognition of Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, we offer a look at ongoing suicide research pertaining to children and adolescents, LGBT youth, and older adult populations. In addition, our scientists investigate topics including decision-making in suicide, the neurobiology of suicide, and social rejection and suicide. 

Young People

David Brent, MD (Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, Epidemiology, and Clinical and Translational Science and Endowed Chair in Suicide Studies) leads the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)-funded Center for Enhancing Triage and Utilization for Depression and Emergent Suicidality (ETUDES) in Pediatric Primary Care, and directs Services for Teens at Risk (STAR), a clinic devoted to the treatment of adolescent and young adult depression and suicidal behavior. 

Dr. Brent’s work has helped to set standards for the evaluation and treatment of depressed and suicidal youth. His ongoing research includes population health approaches that improve our ability to recognize individuals at risk for suicide and provide them with the right services, as well as to identify time-sensitive inflection points in suicidal risk so as to intervene in real time. 

Peter Franzen, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry), director of the Sleep and Behavioral Neuroscience Center at the University of Pittsburgh, is a recognized expert on the role of sleep disturbance and loss in the development of psychopathology. He is currently principal investigator of an NIMH R01 longitudinal study examining how sleep duration, reward, and cognitive control circuits influence vulnerability for depression and suicidal ideation during adolescence. 

Tina Goldstein, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology) is Director of Psychotherapy Training in Pediatric Mood Disorders and co-director of the STAR Center. Dr. Goldstein’s clinical and research interests focus on enhancing prevention and intervention strategies for youth with, and at-risk for, mood disorders and suicide. Her research activities include the role of altered sleep as a risk factor for suicide among high-risk adolescents. 

Stephanie Stepp, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology) studies the developmental psychopathy of borderline personality disorder in children and adolescents. As part of the ETUDES center, Dr. Stepp is adapting and testing a smartphone safety planning app called Guide2BRITE to help primary care physicians develop a safety plan and stabilize a suicidal patient, thereby avoiding unnecessary referrals to the emergency room and hospital.
LGBT Youth

Brian Thoma, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry) investigates behavioral health in LGBT adolescents and leads an NIMH R01 on biological mechanisms of suicidal behavior in sexual minority adolescents, with a particular focus on differences in suicidality between transgender and cisgender adolescents, as well as the risk for suicidality within subgroups of transgender adolescents. 

Older Adults

Katalin Szanto, MD (Professor of Psychiatry) founded the Longitudinal Research Program in Late-Life Suicide at the University of Pittsburgh to understand the interactions between risk and protective biological and psychosocial factors that lead to the elevated suicide rate in late life. As principal investigator of an NIMH-funded R01 grant, she uses neuroimaging and cognitive assessments and has developed game theory experiments and decision process measures to understand how cognition and decision-making in social context contribute to suicide risk. 

Stephen Smagula, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Epidemiology) uses advanced epidemiology and neuroscience techniques in seeking to clarify the neurobiological basis of sleep-wake-related depression risk in older adults. He currently leads an NIMH-funded R21 grant focused on sleep-wake, cognitive, and affective risks for a worse course of post-discharge suicidal ideation in older adults with major depression.

Decision-making in Suicide

Alexandre Dombrovski, MD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry) is an expert in geriatric psychiatry and suicide, as well as in in decision science, functional neuroimaging, and computational psychiatry. His research goal is to understand how and why a person makes the decision to end their life. Dr. Dombrovski uses functional magnetic resonance imaging to determine whether neural circuits involved in decision-making are disrupted in individuals at risk for suicide. He currently leads an NIMH-funded R01 grant focused on reward learning in late-life suicidal behavior, which was recently featured as an NIMH notable grant.

Neurobiology of Suicidality

Nadine Melhem, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry) is trained in psychiatric epidemiology and statistical genetics and has devoted her career to identifying clinical predictors for suicidal behavior. Her current studies involve developing easily accessible biological markers that can be combined with clinical predictors to achieve greater accuracy in identifying risk for suicidal behavior early to facilitate timely interventions. As principal investigator of an NIMH R01 focused on identifying predictors in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and inflammatory pathways for suicidal behavior in youth, Dr. Melham uses PET imaging to examine the link between brain inflammation and peripheral inflammation in suicidal patients. 

Rebecca Price, PhD (Associate Professor of Psychiatry) focuses on the role of neurocognitive factors in the etiology, course, and treatment of depression and suicidality. Through an NIMH BRAINS award, Dr. Price is investigating intravenous ketamine, an anesthetic drug that has potent, rapid-acting effects on depression and suicidal cognition, and how to safely extend these effects over the longer term, creating a new possibility to address psychiatric crises on the urgent timescale they require. Dr. Price is a recipient of the Laurel E. Zaks Memorial Research Fund award, which provides funding for Department of Psychiatry research pertaining to depression and suicide.

Social Rejection and Suicide

Caroline Oppenheimer, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry) studies how heightened sensitivity to social feedback in adolescence might be related to depression and suicide risk. Her current research focuses on measuring in the MRI scanner how teen brains respond to peer rejection, to help identify the neural basis of suicidal thoughts. In particular, she is interested in studying how brain regions that mediate physical pain are also involved in feeling hurt, or emotional pain, during social rejection. 

Lori Scott, PhD (Assistant Professor of Psychiatry) has focused on examining both distal and proximal risk factors for aggressive and self-harming behavior in a diverse group of young women from a high-risk urban sample through grants awarded by the NIMH and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Her current NIMH R01 investigates social processes and emotional reactivity to social rejection as near-term risk factors for changes in suicide risk over the course of hours, days, and weeks