Suicide is one of the leading causes of death, not just in the U.S., but globally — and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the risk factors that can lead to suicide. In response, Sophia Hovis, a senior nursing major at UCCS, and Jennifer Zohn, Assistant Professor of Nursing, are using their platforms as nurses to identify resources and intervention strategies that can best help those at risk of suicide.
Hovis and Zohn are collaborators on the study, a yearlong Undergraduate Research Academy project examining the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on risk factors for suicide across different populations. Together, they hope to harness the current focus on mental health awareness and bring attention to suicide prevention.
“The interventions and resources identified in this research can be utilized by both health care providers and the general population to prevent suicide,” Hovis explained.
“We believe that we can save lives through this work. Even if one life is touched, or one person is inspired to call a suicide hotline, reach out to a friend that is struggling, or speak to a loved one about their struggles, we will have made an incredible impact with this work.”
To share more, Hovis answered eight questions about her research, her partnership with Zohn and her best advice for students interested in future research opportunities.
1. What was your path to UCCS and working with your faculty mentor?
I began at UCCS in the dual enrollment RN-BSN Program in June 2020. I graduated with my associate degree in nursing in May 2021, and will graduate with my Bachelor of Science in Nursing in December 2021.
I took Dr. Jennifer Zohn’s NURS 2015 (Nursing Research) course during the spring 2021 semester and really enjoyed the course. I had met with Dr. Zohn during the semester about a group project, and at the end of the semester she reached out to me to see if I was interested in applying with her to be part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Academy program. We met and discussed her previous research in the realm of psychiatric nursing and suicide awareness and prevention, and decided to move forward with our application.
2. If you were describing your research/creative work to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
I am researching the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on risk factors for suicide across different populations. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and more than 700,000 people globally die by suicide each year.
Known risk factors for suicide include depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, social isolation, fear, trauma, financial instability and prior suicide attempts. The global COVID-19 pandemic has presented significant societal and health concerns that relate to known suicide risk factors and do not exclude any patient population. The interventions and resources identified in this research can be utilized by both health care providers and the general population to prevent suicide. Understanding the signs and symptoms of suicide risk, utilizing suicide screening questions, and implementing prevention strategies such as crisis intervention and gatekeeper training are vital tools in the fight to increase suicide awareness and prevent suicide.
3. Which concept or discovery from your research/creative work most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
Suicide can be a very intense and difficult topic to discuss. The available data in our research suggests an increase in the prevalence of known risk factors for suicide related to the pandemic. However, Dr. Zohn and I hoped to harness the current conversation around mental health that has risen to the forefront of the public’s consciousness due to the pandemic to start a further dialogue about suicide prevention.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on many people’s lives, we believe that using our platform as nurses, we can educate health care providers and the public about identifying those at risk for suicide and providing resources and interventions to help those in need. We believe that we can save lives through this work, and that even if one life is touched or one person is inspired to call a suicide hotline, reach out to a friend that is struggling, or speak to a loved one about their struggles, that we have made an incredible impact with this work.
4. Describe how and why this research/creative work was started.
Dr. Zohn has a background in psychiatric nursing and has previously researched suicide prevention and awareness. I am myself a survivor of suicide, and my journey to become a nurse and my passion for mental health advocacy were not things that Dr. Zohn was aware of when she reached out to me regarding the Undergraduate Research Academy program. I feel that this was an incredibly serendipitous moment and that my ability to participate in this project and instill some of my personal experience into this work has been truly life-changing.
We talked at length at our first meeting regarding the challenges that COVID-19 has presented in our lives as nurses and the effect that the pandemic has had on mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD. We decided that this was a topic that was very timely, deeply important to discuss, and that could be profoundly impactful in today’s world.
5. What has the experience of working with your faculty mentor and fellow researchers been like?
The experience of working with my faculty mentor has been enlightening, inspiring, enjoyable and meaningful. I have learned so much about both our research topic and nursing research as a whole. Through URA workshops, I have learned about presenting research, verbal communication skills, research posters, career planning, networking, graduate school and much more. I have thoroughly enjoyed being part of the URA program and have discovered a new interest in nursing research and evidence-based practice.
6. How has this work helped prepare you for your future in graduate school or your career?
This work has prepared me for my future career by giving me more knowledge about suicide prevention strategies and increasing my knowledge and comfort around discussing suicide risk and mental health issues with my patients. I have been considering going to graduate school for some time. I plan to spend several years at the bedside learning in that environment, but I intend to return to school in the future. I now have a strong background in research and learned about graduate school in one of the URA workshops, which will be an advantage for me in the future when I decide to return to school.
7. What has been the most memorable part of working on this project with your faculty mentor?
The most memorable part of working on this project has been reflecting on how far I have come as a person, a student, and now a nurse. I have been able to overcome so many obstacles and have worked so hard to get to this point in my life. To be able to help others by presenting this work and spreading awareness about suicide is such an incredible culmination of my academic and life experience thus far. I am so excited to see where this work will take me in the future and to see the impact that it will have in nursing practice. It has been such an honor to work with Dr. Zohn, to learn from her, and to be part of such an important and meaningful project.
8. What advice would you give first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor?
I would advise first-year students who are interested in working with a faculty mentor to go for it! I have learned so much through this experience and have cultivated future opportunities for nursing conferences and article publication with my mentor. I would not have realized my passion for research if I had not had the chance to participate in the URA Program with Dr. Zohn.
The Undergraduate Research Academy encourages UCCS students to expand their education beyond the classroom through participation in research and creative projects while engaging in mentorship with UCCS faculty. The yearlong collaborative research projects further students’ professional and academic development while furthering faculty members’ research program goals.
UCCS celebrates this year’s cohort of Undergraduate Research Academy student and faculty researchers. All those interested in participating should visit the Undergraduate Research Academy website for more information.