Former UF Fogarty Fellows receive grant to study suicide in Sikkim, India

Rabongla, Sikkim
The town of Rabongla in the state of Sikkim. Photo by Dr. Krishna Vaddiparti.

As a hospital clinical psychologist working in Sikkim, a small Indian state nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Dr. Sonam Lasopa encountered several patients who had attempted suicide. At the same time, the local media was reporting several cases of death by suicide. Yet, there were no data on the actual suicide prevalence or any researchers trained to conduct studies that may help clinicians understand who may be at risk.

Now, Lasopa and Dr. Senthil Reddi, both former trainees of UF’s Fogarty International Center Indo-US Training in Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders & Diseases Across the Lifespan program, will lead a new a statewide program to understand the causes of suicide and suicide attempts among people in Sikkim and develop preventive strategies and interventions to reduce mortality due to suicides.

Members of the Sikkim Suicide Action Prevention Network, or SPAN, Project will conduct research to better understand factors associated with deliberate self-harm, and test the effectiveness of a brief intervention in reducing suicidal behavior delivered by trained counselors.

For Lasopa, the new project is the culmination of several years of research training that began when she traveled to Gainesville to work under the mentorship of Dr. Linda B. Cottler, director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Fogarty International Center training program, a dean’s professor of epidemiology and the College of Public Health and Health Professions’ associate dean for research.

Linda Cottler
Dr. Linda B. Cottler

The UF Fogarty International Center training program seeks to reduce the training gap and increase research capacity for chronic non-communicable diseases, and focus on behavioral conditions that receive little attention even though they are increasingly contributing to the burden of disease in India. Trainees receive mentoring on research methods at UF and the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, India. Research opportunities range from topics focusing on children and adolescents, to those affecting older adults.

As a research fellow and UF epidemiology doctoral student, Lasopa was involved in several research projects, grant writing and analysis of secondary data and community-based efforts to understand health, health behaviors and access to health care. Through studies led by Cottler, she gained hands-on community-based research experience; even traveling to Haiti to monitor and supervise health workers conducting household surveys on health. Her Ph.D. dissertation focused on the study of risk factors for the non-medical use of prescription stimulants among 11,048 youth in the U.S.

Fogarty fellow team
Back row, Dr. Mingma Sherpa and Dr. Sonam Lasopa. Front row, Dr. Krishna Vaddiparti, Dr. Sydney Moirangthem and Dr. Senthil Reddi. Photo by Dr. Linda Cottler.

Following her UF graduation in 2016, Lasopa returned to Sikkim and rejoined the department of psychiatry at the Sir Thodup Namgyal Memorial Hospital Hospital. Along with her clinical responsibilities, she conducted a household survey to assess the prevalence of substance use and its correlates in East Sikkim, supported by the Advanced In-Country grant by the Fogarty International Center Indo-US Training in Chronic Non-Communicable Disorders & Diseases Across the Lifespan program. She also partnered with several other former Fogarty trainees of the Indo-US Training Program, Dr. Senthil Reddi, Dr. Sydney Moirangthem and Dr. Mingma L. Sherpa, along with Dr. Krishna Vaddiparti, former Fogarty fellow and a UF research assistant professor of epidemiology, to study factors associated with recent suicide attempts in Sikkim and Karnataka.

Last year, the Government of Sikkim asked Lasopa and Reddi to plan and lead the SPAN Project, which formerly launched in May 2019.

“We are fortunate to have the opportunity to advance research capacity in India. Since 2001, with the support of Fogarty International Center, we have trained a remarkable 36 fellows from India in the U.S.,” Cottler said. “These fellows are making incredible contributions in their fields with their research and publications, and perhaps more importantly, mentoring their own M.D.s and Ph.D.s in India. This ripple effect magnifies the impact of this critical investment in training.”

India Map_suicide study locationsThe team, which includes colleagues from the Department of Health and NIMHANS, is committed to developing a Sikkim-specific suicide prevention and intervention plan that would be delivered in conjunction with other stakeholders, such as the departments of social welfare, law and legal authority, police and human resources development, as well as non-governmental organizations across the state. Health care professionals will also be trained to identify those at risk for suicide and improve access and linkages to care, along with positive mental health promotion.

“We are very delighted to know that our capacity building efforts and the contributions of our former research fellows have been recognized by Sikkim’s government through the  launch of an action project to prevent suicides and promote the health of the people of Sikkim,” said Vaddiparti, the training coordinator for UF’s Fogarty International Center training program.