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New Approach to Reducing Suicide Attempts Among Depressed Teens

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Science Update

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A novel treatment approach that includes medication plus a newly developed type of psychotherapy that targets suicidal thinking and behavior shows promise in treating depressed adolescents who had recently attempted suicide, according to a treatment development and pilot study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). The study, described in three articles, was published in the October 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Background

Youth who attempt suicide are particularly difficult to treat because they often leave treatment prematurely, and no specific interventions exist that reliably reduce suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality). In addition, these teens often are excluded from clinical trials testing depression treatments. The Treatment of Adolescent Suicide Attempters Study (TASA) was developed to address this need and identify factors that may predict and mediate suicide reattempts among this vulnerable population. A novel psychotherapy used in the study—cognitive behavioral therapy for suicide prevention (CBT-SP—was developed to address the need for a specific psychotherapy that would prevent or reduce the risk for suicide reattempts among teens. CBT-SP consisted of a 12-week acute treatment phase focusing on safety planning, understanding the circumstances and vulnerabilities that lead to suicidal behavior, and building life skills to prevent a reattempt. A maintenance continuation phase followed the acute phase.

In the six-month, multisite pilot study, 124 adolescents who had recently attempted suicide were either randomized to or given the option of choosing one of three interventions—antidepressant medication only, CBT-SP only, or a combination of the two. Most participants preferred to choose their intervention, and most (93) chose combination therapy. Participants were assessed for suicidality at weeks six, 12, 18 and 24.

Results of the Study

During the six-month treatment, 24 participants experienced a new suicidal event, defined as new onset or worsening of suicidal thinking or a suicide attempt. This rate of recurrence is lower than what previous studies among suicidal patients have found, suggesting that this treatment approach may be a promising intervention. In addition, more than 70 percent of these teens—a population that is typically difficult to keep in treatment—completed the acute phase of the therapy. However, many participants discontinued the treatment during the continuation phase, suggesting that treatment may need to include more frequent sessions during the acute phase, and limited sessions during the continuation phase.

The study revealed some characteristics that could predict recurrent suicidality, including high levels of self-reported suicidal thinking and depression, a history of abuse, two or more previous suicide attempts, and a strong sense of hopelessness. In addition, a high degree of family conflict predicted suicidality, while family support and cohesion acted as a protective factor against suicide reattempts. Other studies have found similar results, according to the researchers.

Significance

Although the study cannot address effectiveness of the treatment because it was not randomized, it sheds light on characteristics that identify who is most at risk for suicide reattempts, and what circumstances may help protect teens from attempting suicide again. In addition, the study found that 10 of the 24 suicide events occurred within four weeks of the beginning of the study—before they could receive adequate treatment. This suggests that a "front-loaded" intervention in which the most intense treatment is given early on, would likely reduce the risk of suicide reattempt even more.

What's Next

The effectiveness of CBT-SP—alone or in conjunction with antidepressant medication—will need to be tested in randomized clinical trials. In the meantime, because many suicide events occurred shortly after the beginning of the trial, the researchers suggest that clinicians emphasize safety planning and provide more intense therapy in the beginning of treatment. In addition, they note that therapy should focus on helping teens develop a tolerance for distress; work to improve the teen's home, school and social environment; and rigorously pursue coping strategies for teens who experienced childhood trauma such as abuse.

References

Vitiello B, Brent D, Greenhill L, Emslie G, Wells K, Walkup J, et al.. Depressive symptoms and clinical status during the treatment of adolescent suicide attempters . Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 2009;48(10):997-1004.

Brent D, Greenhill L, Compton S,Emslie G, Wells K, Walkup J, et al. The treatment of adolescent suicide attempters (TASA): predictors of suicidal events in an open treatment trial . Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2009;48(10):987-996.

Stanley B, Brown G, Brent D, Wells K, Poling K, Curry J, et al. Cognitive behavior therapy for suicide prevention (CBT-SP): treatment model, feasibility and acceptability. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry . 2009;48(10):1005-1013.