When four of his colleagues took their lives in a year, psychologist Dr Keith Harris was inspired to focus his research efforts on suicide.
More than 25 years later he has published a new three-pronged mental health assessment tool that more accurately predicts how likely someone is to commit suicide.
“I think if we can get those concepts out there we can save a lot of lives,” he said.
The University of Queensland adjunct fellow’s big change in approach is the mantra that “suicidal thought doesn’t need to be fatal to be serious”.
Many suicide risk assessment models use patients’ behaviour and thoughts to judge their risk and a handful of others also focus on their affect, or feelings, such as a “wish to live” or die.
“Relatively, there is too much emphasis on death from suicide, as opposed to intent to suicide,” he said.
“We know that most people who take a suicidal action do not die on their first attempt.
Dr Harris’s Suicidal Affect-Behaviour-Cognition Scale uses all three parts of the so-called ABC of psychology (affect, behaviour and cognition).
But he said what really set it apart was its flexibility in how all those factors were used to determine risk.
Whereas most tools used behaviour as the major indicator of suicidality, Dr Harris said, his studies had shown this was not necessarily correct.
“Traditionally people would say suicidal thought implies less current risk than somebody who’s made suicide plan and somebody who’s made a suicide plan has less current risk than somebody who’s made a previous suicide attempt,” he said.
“Through these studies I found that actually if you look at intent to die associated with the plan or the attempt, a suicide suicide plan with high intent to die actually infers more current risk than a suicide attempt with low intent to die.”
Those findings come from a study due to be published later this year. The SABCS was published in open access journal Plos One this month.
The paper tested the UQ researcher’s scale against the highly endorsed Suicide Behaviors Questionnaire-Revised measure, finding “incremental improvements over an existing standard”.
Already armed with a masters in psychology, Dr Harris moved into suicide research in 1989 after he moved to Japan and four of his colleagues killed themselves in the space of a year.
He said he hoped his scale, which also gave scope for a broader range of responses than many existing measures, would be adopted in hospitals, private practices and research.
This article first appeared on ‘Brisbane Times’ on 7 July 2015.