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Public Health Alumna Karen pioneers suicide prevention and postvention in Brazil

Name: Karen Scavacini
Based in: São Paulo, Brazil
Degree: Master's in Public Health, Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention track, 2011
Current role: CEO at Instituto Vita Alere

Alumna Karen Scavacini

How and why did you choose to study at KI?

I came to Sweden with my newborn daughter because of my husband's contract, leaving behind a 10-year professional career as a psychologist. When she joined the school at 1.5, I started to search for a Master's degree in the area of health, given in English. When I discovered the Master's degree in Public Health at Karolinska Institutet I was delighted with the possibility of studying at KI, especially with the specialization in mental health because I was able to study something as specific as promoting mental health and preventing suicide. When I received the message that I had been accepted, I cried with emotion. A new path had started, and I was very excited to start the program.

Describe your experience at KI

For me it was a sensational experience to study at KI: the wonderful campus, to meet very interesting people, to find what I needed in the library and obviously the quality of the classes and the teachers. I made a good group of friends and I have a huge affection for the time I spent in KI. There are many special memories, from seeing the hustle and bustle of the press on campus because of the Nobel Prize, the various shades of white during winter, as well as the yellow and red tones of autumn, the awakening of spring. The pulsating and joyful life during the summer: The seminars, the conversations, the lunches and having classes in the little red house where NASP (Suicide Prevention Center at KI) was located, and most of all the researchers that I admired and started to work with.

After you graduated from KI, what was your next step?

My husband's contract ended in the middle of the Master's degree. I couldn't leave without graduating, I was loving the Master's degree, so my husband returned to Brazil and I was alone with our daughter in Stockholm for 6 months, a beautiful challenge. When the face-to-face classes ended, I returned to Brazil to finish writing the dissertation and came back to Sweden for the defense. When back home in Brazil, I organized what I learned and gave the first course to deal specifically with postvention (mourning for suicide). In Sweden, I had already envisioned the opening of a suicide prevention and postvention center in Brazil, so when I returned I put the plan into action and in 2013 the Vita Alere Institute was inaugurated. The first work to deal with postvention in Brazil was my dissertation in Karolinska Institutet; before this, the term was neither used nor known in the country.

What is your current role? How did you get there?

I am currently the CEO of the Institute. It is a private institute, as I had no help from any university or government agency to open it and I wanted to be free to do projects and innovate. I finished my PhD 2 years ago and I am also the representative of Brazil at IASP (International Association for Suicide Prevention), and I am part of the board of ABEPS (Brazilian Association for the Study and Prevention of Suicide). I have already launched national and international books and chapters on the theme and got to where I am with a lot of study, planning and work.

Describe a day on the job.

I start the day by reviewing what I need to do, organizing a list of tasks that need to be done and scheduling meetings, classes and upcoming events. I had to stop with individual psychology appointments because of the demand for projects. Sometimes I can easily work for 10-12 hours a day. We never invested in advertising, everything happened organically and because of hard work and perseverance. The training I received at KI made absolutely all the difference in my life. I am very grateful for what I learned. I didn't work in the area of mental health promotion and suicide prevention before - I only did clinical and hospital psychological consultations. The Master’s simply changed everything. In addition to advanced knowledge it inspired me to do something that I had never thought of doing, and be a pioneer in the type of service that the Vita Alere Institute offers.

How has Instituto Vita Alere evolved since its founding? What is your current engagement during the pandemic?

Today I have a direct team of 5 people and several extra collaborators, but for a long time I did everything myself. We have grown a lot in these years and now we have several projects with schools, universities, social media, technology companies, fire fighters, the community in general. We also offer support groups for suicide loss survivors.

Last year we created a campaign to raise public awareness on YouTube. We were the responsible technicians and we participated in a campaign on suicide prevention for young people that reached 25 million people. We also launched booklets on how to speak safely about suicide in the media, online suicide prevention for parents and educators and for young people.

We launched many training courses and now we have a specialization course, which lasts 2 years, because we realize that there is a lack of qualified labor in the area. During the pandemic, we put support groups online, we have 4 groups in total, so people from all over the country can participate. We created the Mental Health Map with the support of Google, IASP, UNICEF and other partners - it is a site that shows the locations with free online care for mental health and the face-to-face locations (for after the pandemic) based on the person's geolocation, as well as guides who, when and where to seek help. We are doing a series of live streams with experts and influencers about mental health in the pandemic and with the support of Facebook and Instagram, we launched the #emcasacomsaude (athomewithhealth) campaign. Along with 8 more institutes from all over the world, we were chosen by Instagram to participate in the launch of mental health guides, a help for the times of covid-19, and our @vitaalere was the only Brazilian account chosen.

What are your future aspirations?

I would like the institute to continue to grow, to be more and more known and for the team to increase, so that we could help more people and act in different projects. I want to continue to make a difference in the lives of those in need, in the development of suicide prevention and postvention in Brazil, in the training of professionals and perhaps in partnership with international institutions.

What is your advice to prospective and/or current students at KI?

We don't know how much what we do today will be decisive for our life in the future. Studying at Karolinska Institutet is a privilege for a few, enjoy the time, friends, the beautiful city of Stockholm, the fikas, the opportunities and the knowledge you will receive. Honor this opportunity to help others and make a difference in those close to you or where you live. Don't be afraid to dare, to dream and to do. Be the difference you want to see. I am very grateful for everything I learned as it made all the difference in my professional and personal life today. Maybe this may seem like an exaggeration to you today, but maybe 10 years from now you will think differently.