Monday, September 15, 2008

The Wilkes University Beacon: Suicide expert offers insights in Issues in Education series

Q & A with Dr. J.J. Rasimas
LeeAnn Searfoss
Issue date: 9/14/08 Section: Lifestyles

According to Margarita Tratakovsky, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that "75 percent of all individuals with an anxiety disorder will show symptoms before the age of 22."

In a recent presentation to the American Psychological Association, psychologist Dr. David Drum reported on a comprehensive survey he conducted that indicates, "Six percent of undergraduates and 4 percent of graduate students reported seriously considering suicide within the 12 months prior to answering the survey...[Thus] at an average college with 18,000 undergraduate students, some 1,080 undergraduates will seriously contemplate taking their lives at least once within a single year."

Last Thursday, renowned suicide and mental health expert, Dr. J.J. Rasimas, offered a lecture, "Suicide: Public Health Challenges and Opportunities," as part of the Issues in Education series. Rasimas is a graduate of Wyoming Seminary College Preparatory School in Kingston, PA, as well as the University of Scranton and Penn State University. Rasimas agreed to sit down and speak with The Beacon to offer some insights into his career and dedication to educating on the issue of suicide.

The Beacon: How did you arrive at the current point in your professional career?

Rasimas: It was during medical school that I transitioned over from oncology to being interested in mental health. I was still very interested in cancer and the other illnesses that we were treating, but I thought going into medical school was about making people's lives better. While there, I met a lot of people who were really sick and they still had great lives, and vice versa, people who weren't really sick but had miserable lives. I wondered 'what is this about?' and I felt that psychiatry offered a chance to answer a major question for clinical care and research... I retooled halfway through my residency at Penn State University and went to psychiatry at the Mayo Clinic. I then found my way to the National Insitute of Mental Health, working in clinical research.

The Beacon: Since your move the National Insitute of Mental Health, what have you focused on?

Rasimas: It's a half-and-half position. I take care of patients, as well as researching, teaching, and taking my own classses to learn and grow both as a person and as a medical professional. The half that is clinical is liaison clinical psychiatry. That is a name for meeting with patients whose primary problem is medical or psychiatric and if they, at the same time, have trouble with depression, anxiety, or an adverse reaction to a medicine that clouds their thinking. We try to figure out which parts are biological, which parts are due to their illness, and which part we can treat independently as a mental health problem.

The other half is scattered among a few different things. Included in these are researching certain groups of patients with psychiatric issues to better understand mental illness, as well as using my time at National Institute of Mental Health to help people get research funded to better understand the nature of suicide and those who attempt it. Suicidal folks are the toughest people to study, because they are not always willing participants in their care. People with thoughts of suicide are not looking for help, and all doctors want to do is help. It's an interesting situation.

The Beacon: Because of your obvious professional background, you make a perfect fit for this lecture series. What is your purpose with today's talk?

Rasimas: The more we have public stories that really disturb us about what happens on college campuses--places like Virginia Tech--where mental health issues go unnoticed, the need to do outreach to individuals in similar situations becomes critical. This is an opportunity to come and talk about some of the problems associated with research and also point out some of the things we are not doing as well as we could about making help available to those who are in distress. It's an opportunity to enhance awareness to the problems that are already addressable.

The Beacon: Since your main outreach this afternoon is college-aged students, are there any specific things young people can do to address such a devastating topic when they are either approached or have these feelings themselves?

Rasimas: In the wake of some of the troubles we've seen highly publicized, it became very clear that there were a lot of folks who were very concerned about students but felt paralyzed. They felt paralyzed by everything from school policies to the confidentiality of friendships. I know that just talking about the problem for half an hour or so in front of one college audience is not going to change all the college policies that make it difficult to get people into treatment and care. But still, silence is the most dangerous of any response that we could possibly have. The lack of a relationship, the lack of recognition, silence, stepping away, being so fearful that there is nothing done is more dangerous than anything else we could ever do. The thing that keeps people in the world is relationships. It's what we're here for. We are not here to be islands within ourselves.

The Beacon: Are there any thoughts or advice you would like to leave your college audience?

Rasimas: I would want you all the question why there is an illness out there that kills more people your age than every other major medical illness out there. This has not been on the front page or radar and our resources are not going towards it. I would want all of you to question why that is. As you move on after college, you should have people seriously look at your age group and say, "How much do you really care about us being alive?" Because if you make it through this time period, you are the leaders for the next generation. Suicide is one of the biggest threats to those surviving young age.

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