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Blugold psychology professor receives six-figure national grant to further suicide research

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: During COVID-19, Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp has her SPARC research lab meetings in person just once per week, while ongoing data collection and analysis can be conducted remotely or by individuals in the lab for the duration of the multiweek study.

Despite decades of research and improvements in the fields of mental health care, suicide remains a major public health concern and the second leading cause of death among youth and young adults in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just under 15,000 people between the ages of 10 and 34 died by suicide in 2018, a rate that continues to rise.

Jennifer Muehlenkamp

Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, professor of psychology and director of the UW-Eau Claire Suicide Prevention and Awareness Research Collaborative (SPARC).

Research into the understanding and prevention of suicide has been the life’s work of Dr. Jennifer Muehlenkamp, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The National Institute of Mental Health has recently awarded her another sizable grant to further her research — over $412,000 in R1 grant funding to UW-Eau Claire’s Suicide Prevention & Awareness Research Collaborative (SPARC) for a new project. (See related story about SPARC.)

A major component of Muehlenkamp’s previous research has focused on non-suicidal self-injury as a risk factor for suicide, and this new project will examine that connection more closely.

“We know that engaging in non-suicidal self-injury is a risk factor for suicide, but we don’t really know why,” Muehlenkamp says. “Part of this study will look at what factors, on a day-to-day basis, impact that connection — what changes across a single day can impact an individual’s risk for suicide in the next day.” 

Much existing research has examined long-term factors that increase risk of suicide, but what is less understood to date are the short-term factors that have a strong impact on risk for suicide.

According to Muehlenkamp, there is an increasing body of research to suggest that sleep plays a specific and significant role in increasing vulnerability for suicide, so a close look at sleep patterns from day to day, and perhaps over a period of weeks, will be an important element of this research.

“We would expect that people getting adequate sleep, or see changes toward more sleep, would be less emotionally sensitive, they will have a more positive self-perception and would be less likely to see big fluctuations in emotional states,” Muehlenkamp says. “These people would then be less likely to self-injure, and then less suicidal. For those who are sleep-deprived, we would likely see the opposite, an increase in all those risk factors.”

The funded study is still in the preparation stages and will include 125 participants, UW-Eau Claire students and/or community members between the ages of 18 and 25, who have self-identified as having experienced suicidal thoughts and have engaged in non-suicidal self-injury. 

Unique opportunities for students

Muehlenkamp, who has mentored dozens of undergraduate researchers at UW-Eau Claire, currently has nine students on this project. Some have conducted previous research in her SPARC lab, and others are either new to her lab or new to undergraduate research entirely, but one thing is common to all — they will each gain experience and knowledge unmatched at the undergraduate level.

“Dr. Muehlenkamp is highly regarded as a national leader in identifying specific risk factors for suicide,” says Dr. Patricia Kleine, UW-Eau Claire provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “With this grant, she will continue to provide exceptional opportunities for undergraduate students to actively engage in research with a clearly identifiable purpose of improving outcomes for individuals at risk for suicide.”

Student impact, in their own words

Carley Owens, junior neuroscience major from Barneveld
Female students in lab, one masked two on remote screen

Through remote conferencing tools, Carley Owens (masked) and fellow lab team members McKenna Roessler and Isabel Yu have been able to continue collaborating on the SPARC project despite the need for COVID-19-related isolation.

I got involved with Dr. Muehlenkamp 's research my freshman year when I asked my Psych 100 professor how to join student-faculty research on campus. Within a week I had an interview and became a member of the SPARC team. Less than a year after beginning research into suicide, I lost one of my friends to suicide, which has increased my interest and involvement.

This research is so personally rewarding, and the opportunities I have found in the SPARC lab are the building blocks to my current CV. My research has been accepted at national conferences, Dr. Muehlenkamp nominated me for the Provost’s Honors Symposium in the spring of 2020, and to collaborate with Mayo Clinic researchers in the spring of 2019.

Although it may be a difficult topic, this lab environment is the most positive and refreshing experience I have on campus. Dr. Muehlenkamp has mentored me for several years, and she has had the greatest faculty impact on my life here at UWEC.

McKenna Roessler, first-year psychology major and Blugold Fellow from Tomahawk

Before arriving on campus I was invited to join the Blugold Fellowship, which would allow me to jump right into an extended research opportunity from the start of my first year. Of course, I couldn't turn down such an offer. It would allow me to dive right into my major and maybe even have an actual impact on the community.

When it was time to select the path of research for the next two years, I was intrigued most by Dr. Muehlenkamp’s lab, which had been working extensively on research regarding suicide prevention. I felt that the SPARC lab would be the right route for me; my end goal in psychology is to attend grad school and go on to become a counselor or clinical psychologist, so this topic is a good fit. I joined the lab with another interested Blugold Fellow and we really hit the ground running with opportunities that being in the lab offered us.

This research will give me the opportunity to become directly involved with my field from the start and gain experience working with clients. Focus on mental health is only becoming more important, and suicide and self-injury are not things we can ignore until they somehow affect us or someone we know.

Isabel Yu, first-year undeclared major from Maple Grove, Minnesota
Isabel Yu

First-year student Isabel Yu has loved ones who have engaged in non-suicidal self-injury, and she looks forward to the overall understanding of this behavior she will gain along with the unparalleled undergraduate research experience.

I just recently joined the team a few weeks ago through the UW-Eau Claire University Honors Program. I chose to join this team because of my interest in psychology and Dr. Muehlenkamp’s research sparked a high level of interest for me.

I have not done formal and collaborative research like this in the past, and I am excited about this opportunity. I have not declared a major, so I hope in working in the psychology field and with others who have experience in the subject will help me discover if it is a major for me. I am also hoping to create relationships and connections with others in the field.

Dr. Muehlenkamp and the team I am working with are all so supportive of my success within the program and want me to engage in research. Everyone is so supportive, and they want you to learn and grow to get as much as you can out of the experience and research which is so amazing and a great opportunity.

New and improved research methodologies

According to Muehlenkamp, what is most exciting about this project are the ways in which this study will engage the research team in new state-of-the-art technologies to collect and analyze data.

“Part of what makes this such an innovative study is that it focuses on the micro-changes that can truly guide and inform risk assessment,” Muehlenkamp says. “We’re using an innovative technology in the field of research into suicidology, called ecological momentary assessment or EMA.”

This EMA technology, a mobile data-collection application on smartphones, allows participants in the study to complete real-time assessments of what they are feeling in the exact moments throughout a day.

“We are using the daily diary version of this EMA application,” Muehlenkamp explains. “So where most studies will ask a subject to ‘tell me in the last week, or the last several weeks, how you have felt,’ these subjects will be able to enter those data points in the moment.

“These research students will be exposed to and trained in the most current, innovative research methodologies for studying suicide.”