The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recently awarded Nicole Cain, an associate professor in the Department of Clinical Psychology, a one-year R56 grant to fund her research on social disconnection and suicide risk in older populations.
Cain said older populations, which are also the fastest-growing populations, have the highest suicide rates nationally and globally due to their dwindling social networks. Death, loss and illness all become more common as adults get older, which worsens their mental health, she said.
Cain said other factors, like being put in nursing homes and the isolation imposed by coronavirus disease, only further harm older adults' mental health.
She said poor mental health leads to a feeling of social disconnection, which Cain defines as the shrinking size and worsening condition of one’s social network. She said social disconnection also includes feelings of loneliness, as well as conflicts and rejection within relationships.
Cain said to conduct her research, she will select a group of 30 older adults. She said through an app on their phone, each subject will be asked questions three times a day about how they are feeling at the moment, including whether they are feeling lonely or suicidal.
"This really gives us a snapshot of how social disconnection can relate to fluctuations in suicidal ideation in people's daily lives," Cain said.
She said the study's participants will come from nursing homes and senior centers, and she plans on beginning her research as early as this winter. Cain said she aims to discover the exact moments in her subjects' lives when their mental health begins to worsen and lead to suicide ideation.
Cain said she became involved in this area of study ever since she became a licensed clinical psychologist. She said she has been interested in the factors that may lead to someone attempting or committing suicide.
"I kind of came at (my research) from the social side of things, thinking about the loneliness and the rejection and how that might impact suicidal behavior," Cain said. "But as a clinical psychologist, I'm always wanting to improve and understand more about why my clients are thinking about suicide."
Cain said obtaining the NIMH's grant was a long-term process that involved writing papers, detailing hypotheses, planning and recruiting sources and getting a team together to help finalize those ideas.
She said she initially applied in October 2022 and waited until February for the NIMH to review her application. Cain said she received positive feedback from it, but that did not necessarily mean she was guaranteed funding. She said she received the grant in July, and it was publicly announced in October.
The R56 grant is given to one- to two-year research projects that are considered to be high priority, according to the National Institutes of Health. Cain said she plans to apply for a four-year extension for the grant and conduct more research to collect information on a larger sample of older adults.
In future research, Cain said she hopes to create more selective psychotherapy treatments targeting the social aspects that affect older adults' mental health. She said this will help struggling adults to enhance their social engagement and reduce suicidal risk.
“As humans, we're driven to want to have connections with others, and so when we're not feeling connected, that's when that sense of isolation and loneliness … increases suicidal ideation," she said.