University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Dr. Lloyd Balbuena sees parallels between the quest for a cancer cure and his search for behaviour or biological factors that can be acted upon to prevent suicides.
“How many years have we been studying cancer and have we found something that definitely cures cancer?” says Balbuena, 2023 recipient of the SHRF Early Career Award. “With any cancer researcher who is just starting out, if you ask them: ‘Are you going to make a discovery that will cure this disease?’ The answer is probably, ‘I don't know. But it's important and I'm curious. So I'm just gonna keep doing it.’”
Each year, SHRF presents its Early Career Award to one scientist who has – since receiving an Establish Grant five years earlier – made significant strides in building capacity, advancing knowledge, informing decision making and delivering health, economic, and social impacts in Saskatchewan.
Balbuena, a researcher in the Department of Psychiatry in USask’s College of Medicine, says advancing the science in this area is critical because – unlike other diseases that can be treated once detected – there is no reversing suicide. His approach is influenced by a varied academic background that includes philosophy, information management, and cognitive science.
Since receiving a SHRF Establishment Grant in 2017, Balbuena has been bringing both a macro and micro lens to try to answer the question of whether addressing neuroticism or mood instability can prevent suicide. Through the research relationships he’s built over the past five years, he’s been able to access both the UK Biobank and the Cohort of Norway (CONOR) datasets. The former is a database containing detailed genetic and health information from half a million British residents, the latter, a collection of health data and blood samples from 175,000 Norwegians.
Through his analysis of UK Biobank data – which linked people’s survey responses to their hospital and death records – he found neuroticism and daily smoking predicted suicide deaths. His analysis of the CONOR data confirmed that daily smoking is associated with suicide deaths.
Here in Saskatchewan, Balbuena surveyed 17 Saskatoon residents diagnosed by a psychiatrist as having anxiety or depression. After an initial pen-and-paper questionnaire asking them if they had thoughts about harming themselves or taking their life, Balbuena and colleagues had these study participants check in twice a day for a week – via a smartphone app – to report on the extent to which they felt suicidal. Through this work, he’s shown that a person’s variation in mood over the course of a week does not correspond at all with what they report at a single point in time. Another analysis by Balbuena found higher rates of self-harm leading to hospital or death in Saskatoon’s inner city neighborhoods, but that previous visits to hospital could not reliably identify who would later die from suicide. This finding, says Balbuena, suggests primary prevention of suicide is important.
Since 2018, Balbuena has co-authored 45 papers, shared his findings at academic conferences, and secured additional funding from the Saskatchewan Centre for Patient-Oriented Research and the Royal University Hospital Foundation. As well, he has received a travel grant from the French Embassy and in-kind support – in the form of cloud computing resources –from Google and Oracle. His work on suicide and self-harm in Saskatoon was facilitated through support from the Saskatchewan Coroners Service and the Saskatchewan Health Authority.
While Balbuena hasn’t had any breakthroughs yet, he’s undeterred. “This (research) is like a marathon,” says Balbuena. “I may not finish first. I may not even get to the finish line. But it is worth understanding. If I can identify something (that helps prevent suicides), that would be very good.”