Daniel Coppersmith from Concord, Massachusetts is researching the epidemiology and prevention of youth suicide and self-harm at the University of Otago on his Fulbright US Graduate Award. Daniel graduated with a BA from Brown University in 2015.
Fulbright scholar Daniel Coppersmith experienced the tragedy of youth suicide during his own teen years. Now, he is dedicating his career to improving outcomes for at-risk youth.
New Zealand’s suicide rates are currently at a record high and youth stand out among those statistics. On his Fulbright exchange from Concord, Massachusetts, Daniel wants to find out why “such a beautiful country” has so many young people choosing to end their lives prematurely. In his research at the University of Otago, he is looking at ways to better identify signs that youth are at risk of suicide in order to prevent further self-harm.
He was directly affected by youth suicide when two teenagers in his hometown took their own lives, including one at his high school.
“It had a really big impact on our community. It was just a huge tragedy. It was really, really sad,” Daniel says.
During his first year studying psychology at Brown, he discovered that suicide was an area of research one could specialise in. It fascinated him. He wanted to contribute to reducing the risk of youth suicide. Daniel first studied the topic on an internship at Harvard’s Nock Lab, which aims to advance the understanding of why people engage in behaviours that are harmful to themselves. Its research has a special emphasis on suicide, self-injury, and other forms of direct self-harm.
“The first thing I did in the lab was transcribe these 30 hour long interviews with soldiers who had recently attempted suicide. It was really tough. They were really tragic stories. It was also a huge eye opener because behind every number and every statistic, there is a story,” Daniel says.
“I heard what happened in their lives, how they wished they’d received help and many said they were glad they had lived. That speaks to why this research is so important.”
With its high youth suicide toll on a global scale and top-quality research such as the longitudinal Dunedin Study, New Zealand appealed to Daniel the most out of the 160 countries Americans can travel to on the Fulbright programme. Kiwi researchers he reached out to online in advance of applying were supportive and encouraged him to make the journey.
“I also just like New Zealand and had wanted to visit. It’s so beautiful. I love the outdoors, it fits with the active lifestyle I enjoy so I knew I could be happy here.”
Daniel arrived in New Zealand in February 2016. He is doing an independent research project as a visiting student researcher, rather than being enrolled in a qualification. This is because his research is so specific, and he appreciates having autonomy due to the nature of work.
There are a lot of potential reasons behind New Zealand’s high suicide rates, especially for youth. Daniel says nobody has the answers yet.
“It is a complex problem with psychological, biological and societal factors that feed into it. There are a multitude of different risk factors that interact in really complex ways. New Zealand does have some things that could potentially increase the risk – such as rural areas with social isolation, smaller communities and a relatively small country could mean suicide contagion is relatively more applicable. Youth especially vulnerable to suicide contagion, that’s why there are strict media reporting guidelines on it,” Daniel says.
“Mental illness of course increases the rates of suicide. New Zealand does have relatively high rates of child abuse – we know that increases the likelihood of suicide risk because early life stressors can potentially lead to negative later in life outcomes. There has been a lot of epidemiological work to try and understand the risk factors but the reality is, we don’t know.”
New Zealand has made greater investment in mental healthcare in recent years with a youth suicide prevention strategy, creating suicide prevention coordinator roles on district health boards and funding Maori-specific youth prevention.
Of the New Zealanders Daniel has spoken to on his Fulbright exchange so far, all have been aware of the disproportionately high youth suicide toll.
“No one I have spoken to in New Zealand is surprised to hear it’s a problem. It is complex. New Zealand is a relatively well-off country that has overall relatively good health outcomes but as we’ve seen in the States, even as health outcomes have improved the suicide rate has remained relatively stable.”
The first half of his project was understanding the phenomenon of youth suicide in New Zealand. This included reading up on all relevant local research he could find from the last ten years to gather a clear picture of the situation. He studied the results of an Auckland survey of thousands of adolescents that looked at behaviours and individual risk profiles in an attempt to identify warning signs that clinicians and teachers can look out for.
“One of the goals in the New Zealand Suicide Prevention Strategy is increasing the evidence base so people have stronger idea of who to target for help. I’m hoping my research can contribute to that space.”
During the second half of the year he is looking at possible interventions, including how a mobile app using mindfulness techniques could help at-risk youth.
“It’s not entirely feasible for me, in one year, to do a full large scale intervention. But I can do work that will lead to that in future. I believe in the translational value of research. I think your research is useless unless it has some utility for the populations you’re trying to help – so that’s always in the back of my mind.”
As a researcher, it can be difficult dealing with subject matter such as self-harm and suicide. At Harvard, Daniel learned to be acutely aware of his own mental health and wellbeing, especially when working with participants. He relies on strong social and family relationships, exercise and a range of hobbies combined with self-awareness to keep positive.
Daniel has also spoken with a number of bereaved parents of youths who died by suicide. Those mums and dads usually have a lot of frustration and sadness about the system of mental health services available.
“Hearing the stories of bereaved parents, seeing these statistics is all a motivator to work harder. Research can really be a strong form of advocacy in matters like this,” Daniel says.
“If you publish a paper recommending the government invest more money in relevant services, or revaluate ways of dealing with patients, that can be useful. I am trying to make some of my research findings understandable for policy makers and the public so it can be useful.”
In Dunedin, he has been living in a studio apartment in a historic building with “beautiful antiques, skylights, chandeliers – and I’m pretty sure it’s haunted”. While there are pros and cons to living alone compared to flatting with others, Daniel says he has enjoyed the privacy to focus on his work and the handy location, a walkable distance from campus. “It’s super convenient.” He has been adventurous in new experiences while on his exchange to learn new skills and meet new people – he’s tried kick boxing, Indian cooking and bone carving so far.
“I really like Dunedin, it’s a lovely city. It’s very vibrant and has a lively student population. People are very welcoming, they recognise me as American from my accent so that’s a conversation starter. I went to my first rugby match the other day – the Highlanders – it was so much fun.”
Daniel plans to do his PhD in psychology focusing on the prevention of youth suicide and self-harm when his Fulbright exchange is over.
He has gradually become more open in telling people that he is doing suicide research rather than just saying ‘mental health’, because it often leads to interesting and meaningful conversations.
“People sometimes say they knew someone who died by suicide and it was really sad, or that they’ve head of some preventative work being done. I get to hear personal stories, ask questions and spark some important conversations. You can’t alleviate suffering unless you talk about it,” Daniel says.
“Youth suicide is a problem in New Zealand and I feel very honoured and privileged to be given the opportunity to do this work and to try and help.”
The Fulbright US Graduate Awards are for promising American graduate students to undertake postgraduate study or research at New Zealand institutions in any field. Up to eight awards valued at up to NZ$33,000 are granted each year, towards one year of study or research in New Zealand. Applications close 11 October annually.