Project Summary

What is being studied and why?

Adolescent suicide is the second leading cause of death in teenagers. Preventing suicide in teens would keep them safe, allow them to get the mental health help that they need, and also protect families, friends, and communities from grief and loss. There are several programs that have been shown to work for preventing suicide, including an approach called dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). However, the studies done so far are so small that it is still unknown whether DBT works for all groups of teens—teens at medium risk versus those at very high risk, boys versus girls, younger versus older teens—or whether different approaches may work better for some groups. This is important information, because it would help teens and their families to make the best choices from several suicide prevention program options. Hospitals, clinics, doctors, and therapists also need information about what suicide prevention services work best and should be made more available. The goal of this study is to answer these questions.

What are the aims of the study? What will the project team do?

The first aim, which will be completed in the first 18 months of the project, will be to plan the main study comparing two approaches to suicide prevention in collaboration with young people who have lived with suicidal behavior, their parents, doctors, and therapists. The second aim will be to compare how well these two approaches work to prevent suicide attempts in a group of 9,800 teens. The third aim is to see whether the two approaches lead to differences in the mental health care each teen receives—like being hospitalized, taking medications, seeing therapists, and so on—and to see which program works best for different groups, such as young men versus young women, or Hispanic teens and those who are not Hispanic, as well as what works best for teens who are at medium, medium-high, and high risk for suicide.

The first suicide prevention approach is called “stepped care,” and offers three levels of services to teens, depending on their level of risk. Medium-risk teens will be offered monthly phone check-ins; medium-high risk teens will also be offered a chance to work with a therapist to create and use safety plans that spell out how teens can keep themselves safe and what they will do if they feel suicidal. Teens at the highest level of risk will also be offered DBT group therapy for six months. The second suicide prevention approach is called Zero Suicide (ZS) care. This program is used by many healthcare clinics, hospitals, and therapy centers across the United States. It encourages therapists and doctors to ask about suicide frequently, and to make sure that teens who are at risk of suicide are connected to the best health care available, which might be regular therapy, medications, or a combination of the two.

To determine who to include in this study, the team will use a computer program to predict the chance that a teen will make a suicide attempt in the next six months. This program uses data collected by the healthcare system and is about 85 percent accurate. Teens who are at medium or high risk of suicide based on the computer program will be assigned by chance, like the flip of a coin, to one of two suicide prevention approaches. The team will use healthcare and government databases to see what happens for teens over 12 months so the team can compare rates of suicide attempts, self-harm, and healthcare use.

The goal is to help teens to be treated in a way that allows them the most personal freedom. The results from this study will help health insurers and clinics decide what kinds of suicide prevention care to offer and to cover. They will also help doctors and therapists decide what approaches to recommend to patients, and help individual teens and their families decide what kind of care to receive. The team will share its results with researchers, healthcare organizations, and national groups that advocate for youth suicide prevention to make sure that they will have the information they need to make choices about the best suicide prevention options for all types of teens.

Project Information

Gregory Clarke, PhD
Courtney McCracken, PhD
Kaiser Foundation Research Institute

Key Dates

July 2021
June 2028


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Last updated: March 16, 2022