Sask. student researching impact of exercise on suicidal ideation

The study will seek to understand how and why exercise has a positive impact on people experiencing thoughts of suicide.

Leader Post 3 minute read September 13, 2021

When Kelsey Vig first considered studying suicidal ideation, she hesitated.

After losing a family member to suicide in 2010, she wasn’t sure if the topic was something she wanted to spend her days talking about and researching.

Vig, who is a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Regina, had the idea of studying the impacts of exercise on people experiencing thoughts of suicide. It was suggested to her by her supervisor, U of R psychology professor Gord Asmundson.

The research project would fit well into her own interests, but still she wasn’t sure. Her mind changed, however, the more she worked with more people having experiencing suicidal ideation.

“I realized it doesn’t really need to be that scary. I think a lot of people are quite hesitant to research it or even talk about it. I think people think that suicidal ideation is quite extreme, and if someone’s thinking about it, there’s a very, very real chance that they will die by suicide and that’s not really the case,” Vig said in a recent interview.

“As I kind of came to those realizations, I got a lot more interested in this line of research and noticing just how much of a gap there is in treatments specifically for suicidal ideation, and so I really wanted to be able to look at that and hopefully help fill some of the gaps.”

Some research into the correlation between exercise and a drop in suicidal ideation exists, Vig said, but very little research has been done into whether one causes the other. She believes exercise helps people have less thoughts of suicide, and hopes to create sound evidence of this through her own study.

Vig is looking for adults in the Regina area who have thoughts of suicide and who are not currently physically active to join her study. After going through a short screening process, participants will take part in a six week exercise program designed for people who are not used to exercising regularly. Participants will come to the U of R to exercise three times a week.

Through this study, Vig hopes to gain insight into how exercise impacts peoples’ suicidal ideation.

“Is it that people who are more physically active, does that lead to less thoughts of suicide? Or do people who have thoughts of suicide, is there something that makes them less likely to exercise? Is there something else affecting that relationship?” Vig said.

Once it is established that exercise does reduce suicidal ideation, Vig wants to look at why that relationship exists — whether it’s because exercise improves sleep, increases self-esteem or something else altogether.

Vig expects the study to take until at least June 2022. After the research is complete, she hopes psychologists can confidently recommend exercise as a treatment for patients with thoughts of suicide, adding to the limited treatments currently available.

“We have a lot of general mental health treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy or medications that are used to treat suicidal ideation,” Vig said, noting that many people are not open to those treatment options.

“We actually know that around half of people having thoughts of suicide don’t seek some of the existing treatments, so we need some more options that are effective at reducing suicidal ideation and are more accessible and appealing to people that are having thoughts of suicide.”

lgiesbrecht@postmedia.com