Beyond Vassar

Connecting the Dots in Suicide Prevention

By Eric Marcus ’80 and Rebecca Hyde ’92

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. Christine Yu Moutier ’90 wants to do something about that.

Last fall, following two decades of working as a professor of psychiatry and assistant dean for student affairs and medical education at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, Moutier was named chief medical officer for AFSP, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide.

From its headquarters in New York City, she manages a wide range of the organization’s work, including research funding ($5 million for current research), grant selection, and the dissemination of findings. She also oversees programs for survivors of suicide loss and coordinates educational efforts focused primarily on suicide prevention.

“What I find so special about my job and AFSP is that our work combines evidence-based science with people and their real-life experiences—people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide as well as families and communities affected by suicide,” she says.

AFSP operates 65 chapters in nearly all 50 states and an active Public Policy Office in Washington, DC. Among the biggest challenges the foundation faces is identifying the research proposals that will have the greatest potential impact.

“We already know enough to say with confidence that suicide doesn’t stem from one event or stressor in a person’s life and almost always involves a confluence of factors,” Moutier says. “To do a better job of preventing suicide, we need to know more about those risk and protective factors, including the interplay between mental health, life events, biology, and coping strategies.” AFSP grants allow researchers to investigate that complex array of factors and to find more effective clinical and community interventions for those contemplating suicide as well as those grieving the loss of a loved one.

One current study, for example, is assessing the impact of childhood trauma on the risk of suicidality in adolescent girls, while another seeks to address high rates of suicide among the elderly. Several researchers are examining ways to reduce suicidal behavior among those with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. And one researcher is even using the brain imaging technique known as functional MRI to find out whether cognitive and emotional risk factors for suicide are shared within families.

Suicide is a topic with which many people, including Moutier, can identify. During her residency training, a fellow student took his life.

“I’d gotten to know him on the psychiatry rotation and we’d gone on a few bike rides with friends and family. It was shocking and I racked my brain over and over again, examining every detail of what I might have missed because I felt so responsible, like I should have connected the dots,” she says.

While dedicated to her work as an academic, Moutier has always carved out time for clinical work. She considers her work with San Diego’s Asian refugee population a particular privilege.

“As a mixed-race person growing up in a town that was mostly Slavic and working class, I was teased, so I have special empathy for people who look and feel different. Also, because of mental illness in my own extended family, I grew up seeing how Western medicine wasn’t always trusted,” she says.

Moutier, who was born in Seattle and grew up in Los Angeles, knew as early as 13 years old that she wanted to be a doctor. When it came time to apply to college, Vassar was the only school outside of California she considered. “I viewed Vassar as this amazing place where you could have a very full life and major in music and still go to medical school,” says Moutier, an accomplished pianist. She went on to study medicine at UC San Diego.

Except for her four years at Vassar, Moutier has lived her entire life on the West Coast, but she says her transition to New York this past fall was easier than she expected. “I’m fortunate to have a wonderful partner and two children who were game [for the move]. And we’ve been embraced by both our new neighbors and my new colleagues,” she says. “I feel confident we’ll all fit in just fine.”

—Eric Marcus ’80 and Rebecca Hyde ’92