Skip navigation

GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

GSSW researcher studies social networks to better target suicide prevention training

November 16, 2017

Anthony Fulginiti,

More than 40,000 people die by suicide annually in the U.S., says Graduate School of Social Work Assistant Professor Anthony Fulginiti, and despite increases in advocacy and funding for prevention efforts, suicide rates are going up.

Fulginiti is working to change this trend. Broadly, his research is focused on understanding and developing ways to leverage social connections to prevent suicide. Specifically, he wants to harness the power of social networks and social network methods to inform more effective and sustainable intervention and prevention approaches.

Fulginiti's approach to suicide prevention may be particularly relevant on college campuses, where suicide is the second most common cause of death among students, according to the American College Health Association.

In college settings, including at the University of Denver (DU), a common suicide prevention approach is known as gatekeeper training, which involves teaching people to recognize and support someone in crisis. "The basic idea is training individuals who you think are well positioned to interact with people who are vulnerable or at elevated risk," Fulginiti explains. "In the context of colleges, they generally train resident assistants and staff."

But, Fulginiti says, research has shown that peers tend to disclose suicidal thoughts to other peers; these sensitive disclosures can be more complicated in relationships with resident assistants (RAs) and teachers because those people are in positions of power. And, the standard approach cannot guarantee that all students are connected to someone who has received training. "Because we're assuming RAs and adults are well positioned or well connected, we train those people. But we don't know how much of the student network we're covering or supporting by training those people," Fulginiti says.

An alternative network-driven approach would collect information about student social networks—such as friends and group memberships—and then recruit people from those networks for training. That approach can provide a blueprint of the social landscape, guiding training so that everyone in the network is connected to someone who is trained in suicide prevention. "At the very least, it can help us to see our blind spots and make alternative plans to address them in an intentional way," Fulginiti explains.

Understanding social network connections involves more than looking at a student's Facebook friends. It involves accurately mapping the complex web of student relationships.

Fulginiti has proposed a study to do just that at a scale much larger than has been attempted before. In partnership with leaders in DU Campus Life and Inclusive Excellence, along with Institutional Research, Fulginiti aims to survey 1,500 first-year DU students and map their networks based on self-report friendship ties and affiliations. Fulginiti also is developing a computer program—in collaboration with professors Milind Tambe and Eric Rice, and doctoral student Subhasree Sengupta, at the University of Southern California Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society—that will then identify the people who can maximize training coverage in the student network.

In the first phase of research, Fulginiti aims to demonstrate that it is feasible to collect and use network data to plan gatekeeper training. If successful, the feasibility study would be followed by an efficacy study comparing the standard and network-driven approaches to gatekeeper training to determine how these different training approaches affect student help-seeking and service utilization. The work also will provide descriptive data to test assumptions about where RAs are situated in peer networks, Fulginiti says.

"We are already doing a lot of these campus-connect trainings, but can we do it in a way that is more strategic and sustainable?" Ultimately, Fulginiti says, "We want to see more help-seeking behavior as a result."

Watch a video about Fulginiti's research >>

Support research like this through the Faculty Research Fund >>