National Suicide Prevention Month: CCER Trains Next Generation of Experts

September 1, 2021
Spotlight on Kristen Vescera, PhD, MPH and Kellylynn Zuni, PhD, Class of 2021
With September being Suicide Prevention Month, it’s appropriate to shine a spotlight on the Palo Alto University Clinical Crises and Emergencies Research (CCER) Laboratory, which prides itself as one of the most active suicide prevention research groups in the United States. Under the direction of Professor Bruce Bongar, the CCER trains the next generation of suicide prevention experts by engaging them in projects that study suicide prevention and intervention as it relates to culture. Projects include studies with military and veteran communities, Native American populations, primary care medicine, and more. 
Two recent PAU graduates, Kristen Vescera, PhD, MPH, and Kellylynn Zuni, PhD, are outstanding examples of how the training, mentorship, and research experiences gained in the CCER Lab helped them customize pathways to achieve their goals in suicide prevention.  

For Dr. Vescera, helping veterans readjust after service was a top priority. As a combat veteran in Afghanistan, she was aware of the mental health challenges military personnel experience. Soon after enrolling in PAU’s PhD Program in Clinical Psychology, she discovered Dr. Bongar’s CCER lab. She studied physical bravery as a resilience factor for suicide and collected data from reservist and civilian populations. She wrote publications and book chapters, and made several presentations at the American Psychological Association (APA) Conference. Recently, the APA published an article she co-wrote on supervising trainees in suicide prevention during COVID-19. In addition, she served as president of the Student Veterans Organization and received a PAU grant to conduct a needs assessment of student veterans.

Upon graduation, Dr. Vescera was hired by the VA's Center of Excellence for Suicide Prevention at the Canandaigua, NY, VA Medical Center, to assist in developing training and education programs for veterans. The Center’s mission is to reduce occurrences of suicide, primarily by studying and applying public health approaches to suicide prevention. Kristen believes it was the advice from PAU Professor Peter Goldblum to take a sabbatical from PAU to pursue a Master’s in Public Health that uniquely qualified her for this position. During her second year in the PhD program, Kristen felt something was missing. While she enjoyed working one-on-one with people, she wanted her work to have a large-scale impact, possibly through policy or program development. Professor Goldblum’s advice and Kristen’s perseverance paid off. Upon receiving an MPH from Johns Hopkins University, she completed her PhD at PAU and was soon offered the VA position. 
When it comes to suicide awareness and prevention, Kristen said, “About twenty veterans die per day by suicide. While awareness is growing, I think we can do better to help military personnel and Veterans. I believe my education has prepared me to do this and I am very excited to pursue this path.”  

For Kellylynn Zuni, a tribal member of the Navajo Nation, the CCER Laboratory experience allowed her to research and assist in building a suicide prevention and crisis management training program at the Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico.  

According to the Division of Behavioral and Mental Health Services, suicide is the seventh leading cause of death in the Navajo Nation, and Indigenous communities experience higher rates of suicide compared to all other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.
Dr. Zuni discovered CCER on her first day of class with Dr. Bongar because of the work it does with tribal communities.  Dr. Bongar encouraged Kellylynn to apply for federal funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  Kellylynn’s first grant-writing experience resulted in a five-year, $1 million dollar award to help the Navajo Technical University build suicide prevention services and mental health promotions. 
“The work involved getting the stakeholders and tribal community leadership to better understand the impact of suicide and the importance of approaching suicide prevention in a culturally informed way,” said Dr. Zuni. By year three of the grant, Dr. Zuni and the grant team began seeing results. They learned that by blending other cultural activities with suicide prevention education, programming received more participation. The number of suicide prevention events grew from five to twenty with increasing attendance at each one.  
By year four, with the cooperation of tribal leadership, the team was able to institute a mandatory class in Mental Health First Aid for all students, faculty, and administrators. Among other things, the class helped train attendees to conduct quick suicide risk assessments. 
Overall, Dr. Zuni and the grant team’s efforts resulted in the establishment of campus mental health protocols that included a referral process. “Ultimately, students feel more comfortable seeking mental health care now,” said Dr. Zuni, who believes this to be a major accomplishment for a campus where mental health was not part of its emergency protocol.
Upon receiving her PhD in clinical psychology in June, Dr. Zuni followed in the footsteps of her two older brothers by commissioning in the military where she is now on track to become a Navy psychologist. “I want to give back to my country and represent Indigenous people” she said.  While serving, she still plans to maintain ties with the CCER laboratory and Dr. Bongar to ensure that the project with Navajo Technical University and PAU continues.  “I hope to provide some continuity to our work by helping students write grants and grow the suicide prevention program,” said Dr. Zuni.   
Reflecting on her experiences and suicide prevention Dr. Zuni is encouraged and amazed by how her generation is prioritizing mental health and suicide awareness. “I am seeing more young people engaged in awareness and taking a stand to address the issue. I think social media has contributed to this and has helped make more resources available,” she added.