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Can virtual reality help prevent future suicide attempts in young people?

Marisa Marraccini receives fellowship to partner with minoritized youths in suicide prevention research

Marisa Marraccini, Ph.D., a UNC School of Education assistant professor, has received an MQ and AFSP Fellowship to expand her work to develop and test virtual reality (VR) interventions in the treatment of adolescents hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

The £225,000 fellowship award — from MQ: Transforming Mental Health, an international mental health research charity based in London, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention — will expand research funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, enabling Marraccini to center the voices of Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ youth in the development of VR interventions over the next three years.

“My work situates suicide prevention within the environment youth spend majority of their time: schools,” Marraccini said. “Without prioritizing school environment, researchers and practitioners miss opportunities to address the day-to-day stressors and issues faced by students.

“This award will allow me to partner with ethnic, racial, gender, and sexual minoritized youth recovering from mental health crises to tailor the VR experience to better meet their needs. The goal is to prioritize the voices of youth who are often overlooked – in both practice and research – to make the intervention more effective for supporting recovery and preventing suicide.”

Globally, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds, and in the U.S., it is the third leading cause of death for young people, behind accidents and homicide.

Some groups are at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts than others, particularly LGBTQ+ youths, and risk for suicidal thoughts has increased for people who experience discrimination such as ethnic minorities. If an individual has attempted suicide once, they are at a higher risk of repeated attempts in the future.

When a young person attempts or plans to attempt suicide, they are often hospitalized, usually in a psychiatric facility. Although treatment varies across these facilities, hospitalized youth may receive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help them learn coping skills for suicidal thoughts and to aid recovery.

When they are discharged from the hospital however, they face numerous barriers to implementing the coping skills learned while in the hospital when they return to school and their daily lives.

For many, there is not enough ongoing care or support once they have been discharged from the hospital, and few interventions exist that cater specifically to at-risk groups. This means that the increased risk of repeated suicide attempts remains high.

Marraccini’s project aims to design and trial a VR program that can be used whilst the person is still in hospital, to enhance the CBT and allow them to practice some of the skills they are learning in a virtual school environment.

With this grant, Marraccini and researchers will partner with Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ adolescents who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Together, they will co-design the VR experience to better meet the needs of these young people.

Then, the program will be tested using a randomized control trial in hospitals to determine its effectiveness in helping youth recover from suicide-related crises.

This new VR intervention aims to improve the lives of adolescents struggling with suicidal urges by improving the treatment they receive in hospitals, better matching that treatment to their specific needs and aid long-term recovery, specifically for ‘at risk’ groups.

Ultimately, this can help reduce deaths from suicide among young people.

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