As suicide rates rise in the United States, researchers have been working to
identify approaches to curb the trend.
This roundup looks at recent publications in the field of
suicide prevention research.
The findings are organized by risk group, an approach endorsed
by Cheryl King, a professor in the University of Michigan Medical School’s
department of psychiatry. Behind this structure is the understanding that
different populations exist in different contexts with respect to access to and
provision of health care.
As an example, King compared youth and veterans: youth require family permission for health care, and veterans generally have the option of seeking health care from an entirely separate system than the civilian population. This means “there are differences in the interventions, in the approaches we take,” she explained in a phone call with Journalist’s Resource.
below includes a sampling of successful strategies for suicide prevention for
certain risk groups including men, the military, the incarcerated, youth and
the elderly. Some of these studies have small sample sizes; thus journalists
should seek guidance from researchers in explaining the implications of the
findings and whether they can be generalized beyond these limited groups of
It’s worth noting that while individuals who are sexual and
gender minorities have higher rates of
suicide risk than their heteronormative peers, research on interventions
targeted to this specific risk group is lacking. “Several types of suicide prevention
programs have been developed for use in the general population, though none are
specific to SGM [sexual and gender minority] individuals,” Alexandra
Marshall, assistant professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’
Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health, writes in a perspective article about the issue.
Gun Control and Suicide: The Impact of State Firearm Regulations in the United States, 1995–2004
Andrés, Antonio Rodríguez; Hempstead, Katherine. Health Policy, June 2011.
The intervention: Gun
restriction” is a term for suicide prevention strategies that focus on reducing
access to lethal means, such as firearms. For men, firearms are the most common lethal
mechanism of suicide. This
study looks at how suicide rates
among men changed after states passed a variety of firearm regulations,
including permit requirements, prohibitions on purchases by minors, prohibitions
based on behavioral problems and prohibitions based on past criminal offenses, between
1995 and 2004.
- “General barriers to
firearm access created through state regulation can have a significant effect
on male suicide rates in the United States.”
- The most effective gun
control policies with respect to suicide rates were those that reduced overall
gun availability, including permit requirements and bans on sales to minors.
- Gun control policies that
tried to keep high risk individuals from possessing firearms had less of an
effect on suicide rates. For instance, drug and alcohol misdemeanor conviction
bans did not significantly impact suicide rates and prohibitions related to
mental health concerns were only significant for men between the ages of 25 and
The Effect of Public Awareness Campaigns on Suicides: Evidence from Nagoya, Japan
Matsubayashi, Tetsuya; Ueda, Michiko; Sawada, Yasuyuki. Journal of Affective Disorders, January 2014.
The intervention: Public awareness campaigns
study looks at the relationship between suicide rates and a campaign meant to
increase public awareness of depression and encourage people to seek help. The
study took place over two years in Nagoya, Japan, which in 2010 had a suicide
rate of 20.3 per 100,000 people.
- Wards of the city that
had more frequent distributions of the promotional pamphlet about depression
symptoms and mental health resources saw decreases in the number of suicides in
the following months.
- Suicide rates among men
in particular decreased following the public awareness campaign.
Effect of Crisis Response Planning vs. Contracts for Safety on Suicide Risk in U.S. Army Soldiers: A Randomized Clinical Trial
Bryan, Craig J.; et al. Journal of Affective Disorders, April 2017.
The intervention: Crisis planning
response planning, individuals develop strategies for handling personal crises.
These plans identify individualized warning signs, outline coping strategies
and highlight social supports and professional services. This study compared
the efficacy of crisis response planning as compared with safety contracts.
“The crisis response plan therefore outlines what to do during a crisis,” the
authors write, “an approach that sharply contrasts with the contract for
safety, which outlines what not to do
during a crisis (i.e., engage in suicidal behavior).” This study compared the two
approaches on 97 active duty U.S. Army soldiers receiving emergency behavioral
health services. Of this group, 32 completed safety contracts while 65 created
crisis response plans. Participants were then followed for 6 months after this
initial intervention. The sample was 78 percent male and participants ranged
from 19 to 53 years of age.
- In the six-month
follow-up period after the initial intervention, three participants who
received a crisis response plan attempted suicide (5 percent of the planning
group) compared to five participants who received safety contracts (19 percent
of the contract group).
- “Crisis response planning
was more effective than a contract for safety in preventing suicide attempts,
resolving suicide ideation, and reducing inpatient hospitalization among
high-risk active duty soldiers.”
Comparison of the Safety Planning Intervention With Follow-up vs Usual Care of Suicidal Patients Treated in the Emergency Department
Stanley, Barbara; et al. JAMA Psychiatry, July 2018.
The intervention: The
Safety Planning Intervention (SPI)
The Safety Planning Intervention is another crisis response planning tool. Five emergency departments in hospitals run by the federal Veterans Health Administration administered the trial protocol. Four control sites — also VHA emergency rooms — followed their usual care protocols, which were not standardized across sites, but which “generally consisted of an initial assessment by a nurse or social worker followed by a secondary evaluation by an [emergency department] physician.” Patients were provided with medical care and medications as needed. They did not receive a safety plan.
the study period, which lasted from 2010 to 2015, 1,186 patients were admitted
to intervention sites for suicidal behavior, and 454 were admitted to control
sites. Patients admitted from the emergency room into inpatient care were not
included in the study. The researchers note that this exclusion criteria
limited “the range of suicidality … to a lower-risk population.”
consisted of six steps:
- Identify personalized warning signs;
- Determine internal coping strategies;
- Identify family and friends who can help;
- Identify other individuals who can provide support;
- List mental health professionals to contact;
- Counsel patients on how they can make their environments safer.
in the intervention group, patients were contacted at least twice through
telephone follow-ups to monitor risk and go over the SPI.
- The SPI was associated
with 45 percent fewer patients attempting suicide in the follow-up period as
compared with usual care, “approximately halving the odds of suicidal behavior
over six months,” the researchers write.
- Patients in the
experimental group also had over double the odds of utilizing outpatient mental
A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality Versus Enhanced Care as Usual with Suicidal Soldiers
Jobes, David A.; et al. Psychiatry, 2017.
The intervention: Collaborative Assessment
and Management of Suicidality (CAMS)
described as “an empathic and collaborative assessment and treatment-planning approach
to suicide risk throughout care.” It involves restricting access to lethal
means and fostering coping strategies. “CAMS also targets and treats
patient-defined suicidal ‘drivers’ using appropriate clinical interventions
(e.g., exposure treatment for a posttraumatic stress disorder [PTSD]-related driver
or couples therapy for a marriage-related driver). CAMS is concluded after
three consecutive sessions when suicidal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are
successfully managed per CAMS resolution criteria.”
study involved 148 active-duty U.S. Army soldiers experiencing significant
suicidal ideation. Most of the soldiers were male (80 percent). Soldiers
received either CAMS or the usual care (“typical treatment provided by on-site
military clinical social workers. These clinicians had a broad range of
training experiences and approaches to working with the Soldiers, who were
randomized to their care.”). The soldiers were followed for a year after recruitment,
which was completed in 2014. The data collection phase of the study ended in
- Both treatment groups saw
- However, soldiers
receiving CAMS were less likely to have suicidal thoughts three months after
baseline as compared to the usual care group.
A Systematic Review of Interventions to Prevent Suicidal Behaviors and Reduce Suicidal Ideation in Older People
Okolie, Chukwudi; et al. International Psychogeriatrics, November 2017.
The intervention: Primary care-based depression
review looks at 21 studies of interventions to prevent suicide among older
adults. The most effective were two large, primary care-based trials that involved
multiple hospitals. These interventions featured a collaborative care model in
which “depression care managers” worked with primary care physicians to monitor
symptoms, administer treatment and otherwise support the doctors.
- Of all of the included
interventions, the primary care-based screening and depression management
programs were most effective.
- “The primary care setting
is a good opportunity for suicide prevention intervention, as most suicides are
known to have had contact with a primary care physician within a month of
death,” the authors write. “Primary care offers the possibility of suicide
prevention through improved recognition and detection of depression along with
the optimization of depression management though collaborative care.”
- Other interventions
included in the review also were effective, though to a lesser degree. These
interventions included therapy, medication, telephone counseling, group
activities and community-based suicide prevention programs.
Youth and teens
Association of the Youth-Nominated Support Team Intervention for Suicidal Adolescents With 11- to 14-Year Mortality Outcomes
King, Cheryl A.; et al. JAMA Psychiatry, February 2019.
The intervention: Youth-nominated
aged 13 to 17 who had been hospitalized for a suicide attempt or suicidal
ideation were asked to select “caring adults” to support them after
hospitalization. The adults were trained in suicide warning signs and treatment
support strategies. The adults also received weekly phone calls from support
staff for three months. The researchers were interested in the survival
outcomes for the teens who had these support teams 11 to 14 years after their
hospitalization as compared to those who received treatment but did not have
self-appointed support teams. A total of 448 adolescents were followed through
the study from 2002 through 2016. The adolescents were recruited from either a
university psychiatric hospital or private psychiatric hospital in the United
- There were two deaths in the support team group — one homicide and one suicide — out of a sample of 223. There were 13 deaths in the group without support teams, including eight that were either by suicide or were drug-related deaths with unknown intent, out of a sample of 225.
- The control group had a 6.6-fold increased risk of death compared to the support team group.
- The support team intervention was “shown to be a safe intervention with no associated negative outcomes.”
Cognitive-Behavioral Family Treatment for Suicide Attempt Prevention: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Asarnow, Joan R.; et al. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, June 2017.
The intervention: Family treatment
Safe Alternatives for Teens and Youth (SAFETY) study involved “a
cognitive-behavioral, dialectical behavior therapy-informed family treatment
designed to promote safety.”
Here’s what that means in
practice: “Two therapists work with each family; one therapist focuses
primarily on the youth, and the other focuses on the parents or caregivers
(hereafter referred to as parents). Sessions begin with simultaneous individual
youth and parent components with their respective therapists, and conclude with
all participants coming together to practice skills and to address identified
The researchers compared the
SAFETY intervention to “[outpatient] treatment as usual enhanced by parent
education and support accessing community treatment.” The study occurred
between 2011 and 2015 and the sample included 42 youths between the ages of 12
and 18 with recent suicide attempts or other self-harm.
- SAFETY participants had a
“significantly higher probability of survival without a suicide attempt” at the
3-month follow-up compared with the participants who received the usual
- “This is the second
randomized trial to demonstrate that treatment including cognitive behavioral
and family components can provide some protection from suicide attempt risk in
these high-risk youths,” the authors conclude.
The SOS Suicide Prevention Program: Further Evidence of Efficacy and Effectiveness
Schilling, Elizabeth A.; Aseltine, Robert H.; James, Amy. Prevention Science, February 2016.
The intervention: A school-based prevention
Signs of Suicide (SOS) prevention program teaches students to identify the
warning signs of suicide risk and seek help from adults if they or their
friends are displaying these signs. Part of the program includes completing an
optional self-administered depression screening with the goal of “rais[ing]
students’ awareness of the symptoms of depression in others and of their own
level of depressive symptomatology.” Students with scores above the cut-off are
encouraged to seek help. In Connecticut, 17 high schools implemented the
program. The researchers measured self-reported suicide attempts before and
three months after the program, comparing responses between students who had
participated and those who had not.
- “After controlling for
the pre-test reports of suicide behaviors, exposure to the SOS program was
associated with significantly fewer self-reported suicide attempts in the three
months following the program. Ninth grade students in the intervention group
were approximately 64 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the
past three months compared with students in the control group.”
- “Similarly, exposure to
the SOS program resulted in greater knowledge of depression and suicide and
more favorable attitudes toward (1) intervening with friends who may be
exhibiting signs of suicidal intent and (2) getting help for themselves if they
were depressed or suicidal.”
- “In addition, high-risk
SOS participants, defined as those with a lifetime history of suicide attempt,
were significantly less likely to report planning a suicide in the three months
following the program compared to lower-risk participants.”
Efficacy of Dialectical Behavior Therapy for Adolescents at High Risk for Suicide
McCauley, Elizabeth; et al. JAMA Psychiatry, August 2018.
The intervention: Dialectical
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive
behavioral therapy that has a focus on “teaching skills for enhancing emotion
regulation, distress tolerance, and building a life worth living.” This study
involved 173 adolescents between the age of 12 to 18 who had at least one
suicide attempt over their lifetime and elevated suicidal ideation over the
past month. Participants received either six months of weekly individual and
group therapy; the treatment group received dialectical behavioral therapy and
the control received individual and group supportive therapy.
- Dialectical behavioral
therapy was more effective in reducing self-harm and suicide attempts than the
control treatment group. In the DBT group, 9.7 percent attempted suicide from
baseline to six months, compared with 21.5 percent in the individual and group
supportive therapy arm.
- However, “because youths
in both groups improved over time,” the advantages conferred by DBT decreased longitudinally
– at 12 months follow up, there were no significant differences between the two
Cognitive–Behavioral Suicide Prevention for Male Prisoners: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial
Pratt, Daniel; et al. Psychological Medicine, December 2015.
The intervention: Cognitive
behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that stems from the idea that
thoughts and behaviors influence emotions – thus, it operates by encouraging
individuals to challenge thoughts and change behaviors that are tied to their
mental distress. At a male prison in England, 31 suicidal inmates received
cognitive-behavioral therapy while 31 of their suicidal peers received the
usual treatment, which was not standardized but could include “psychotropic
medication and nursing support.” The length of treatment was 6 months. Overall,
participants ranged in age from 21 to 60 years old, the average age was 35.
Most of the participants were white (85 percent).
- Cognitive behavioral
therapy was more effective in reducing self-injurious behavior, suicidal ideation,
and other suicidal behaviors as compared with the usual treatment.
- Over half of the
participants receiving cognitive behavioral therapy “achieved a clinically
significant recovery by the end of therapy.” One-quarter of the group who
received the usual treatment achieved recovery.
Children in juvenile detention
Biopsychosocial Causes of Suicide and Suicide Prevention Outcome Studies in Juvenile Detention Facilities: A Review
Joshi, Kshamta; Billick, Stephen B. Psychiatric Quarterly, March 2017.
The intervention: Suicide risk screening
strategy for suicide prevention involves screening individuals to determine who
is most at risk. This review of the research on suicide in juvenile detention
facilities looks at the efficacy of screening as an intervention.
- “Various studies, based on their findings, have
suggested that routine suicide screening protocols at the time of intake and
periodically during incarceration are prudent practices,” the authors write.
For example, one study included in the review found that if all youths in a
facility were screened within the first 24 hours of their arrival, there was a
lower incidence of suicide attempts. “Similarly, the odds of suicide attempt
increase if only some portion of the facility’s population is screened within a
2–7 day time frame since their arrival.”
Lithium in Drinking Water and Suicide Prevention: A Review of the Evidence
Vita, Antonio; De Peri, Luca; Sacchetti, Emilio. International Clinical Psychopharmacology, January 2015.
The intervention: Lithium in the water supply
is a chemical element and a treatment for a number of mental health conditions.
Research suggests that lithium is effective at reducing suicide mortality in
both short- and long-term treatment. Lithium is also naturally present in
drinking water in some areas. This research review assessed whether areas with
higher lithium levels in the drinking water had lower suicide rates in the
- A number of recent
studies present consistent findings that higher levels of lithium in drinking
water are correlated with lower suicide rates.
- However, the potential
mechanism of action underlying this relationship is not known.
- Further, even higher
levels of lithium in drinking water are much lower than the therapeutic dose
for humans. “Explication of the findings that even the very low levels of
lithium provided in drinking water may reduce the risk of suicide is, at
present, only speculative,” the authors write.
Long Term Effect of Reduced Pack Sizes of Paracetamol on Poisoning Deaths and Liver Transplant Activity in England and Wales: Interrupted Time Series Analyses
Hawton, Keith; et al. British Medical Journal, February 2013.
quantities of over-the-counter acetaminophen available for purchase
Acetaminophen (known by the brand name Tylenol in the U.S.
and called paracetamol in the United Kingdom), is an over-the-counter pain
reliever that, if consumed in large quantities, can severely damage the liver
and lead to death. Because the drug is sometimes used as a method of suicide,
the United Kingdom government passed legislation in September 1998 to reduce
the quantity sold per package over the counter (pharmacies can sell up to 32
pills per package; non-pharmacy retailers can sell up to 16). To understand the
effects of this policy, researchers looked at the number of deaths per quarter
in England and Wales involving acetaminophen before and after the legislation
- After the legislation passed,
acetaminophen-related deaths fell by an average of 17 per quarter in England
- “This decrease represented a 43 percent
reduction or an estimated 765 fewer deaths over the 11 ¼ years after the
Interventions to Reduce Suicides at Suicide Hotspots: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis
Pirkis, Jane; et al. The Lancet, November 2015.
Reducing access to
“Suicide hotspots are specific, accessible, and usually
public sites which are frequently used as locations for suicide and gain
reputations as such,” the authors of this review write. Such hotspots include
bridges and forests. Do interventions to prevent suicides at these hotspots
work? The authors looked at the evidence from 23 articles to assess their
- Restricting access through barriers and other
means, encouraging people to seek help through signage and crisis telephones at
the hotspot, and establishing a greater chance of third-party intervention
through additional staffing, a police presence, or Closed Circuit TV monitoring
all worked to reduce the number of suicides per year at the hotspots where
these interventions were tested.
Looking for more research? We covered a study that shows
how many soldiers who attempt suicide have no
prior mental health diagnosis. We also collected research that looks
at how the news
media affects suicide trends and wrote about research that highlights
recent trends in injury-related
deaths. For guidelines about reporting on suicide, University of
Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center has recommendations at ReportingonSuicide.org.