University of Michigan researchers say teens who talk with parents, coaches, and others have lower risk of suicide.
After the initial shock of a suicide attempt by a loved one or friend, people can struggle with what to do or say to help out.
There’s pain and sensitivity — and the worry they might say something that causes more harm than good.
But having people to talk with can be key in moving on, so researchers at the University of Michigan had an idea.
Through their program, they checked in once a week for several months with the adults close to a teenager who had been hospitalized for suicidal thoughts or attempts.
The researchers coached and reassured the adults. And, importantly, these adults — parents, relatives, coaches, teachers — had been selected by the teen to be their go-to resources during this time.
About a dozen years later, the extra support from that “youth-nominated support team” appears to have made a difference, according to
Fewer of the teens who got that support have died in those years than teens who got the recommended levels of care.
There could be various reasons for that, but mental health experts say the results underscore the value of social support in recovery — even when it’s difficult to figure out what you’re supposed to say or do.
And that there is always hope, and potentially more pathways to recovery than we even know about.
“It’s not that easy to reach out, to think you’re going to be helpful to a suicidal teen,” Cheryl King, PhD, the Michigan professor of psychiatry and psychology who led the study, told Healthline. “And that’s because, as adults, we feel like we’re going to make things worse or say the wrong thing.”
King said that’s why it’s key that the adults in these studies — 3.4 adults per teen on average — were picked by the teens. They weren’t necessarily people the teens were in a lot of contact with, but the teens picked them as resources they wanted available to them.
The role of King’s team was to support those adults, not the teens.
The teens got the usual care — therapy, medications — and the support of their team of adults.
Those adults, meanwhile, got background on the teen’s treatment plan, coaching on how to talk and listen to them, and reassurance that they wouldn’t be blamed if anything negative happened.
Three months after the teens left the hospital, those weekly coaching calls ended and it was up to the adults and teens from then on.
But just those few months of extra support may have made a difference, at least for some of the kids.
The group of 448 teens who had agreed to participate in the study had been divided randomly in half between getting the usual care and getting that care plus the support team of adults.
As of last year, 11 to 14 years after their hospitalizations, 13 of the teens getting the usual care had died, and 2 of the teens getting extra support had died.
One of those two deaths had been suicide and the other a drug overdose or drug-related infection. There had been three suicides in the other group and eight drug overdoses or infections. (The other two were a homicide and car crash.)
The teens in the extra-support group also were more likely to get more of the recommended treatments, such as attending therapy sessions and sticking to medication plans.
King now wants to look into what exactly it was about the program that might have helped make a difference.
“It’s likely that the immediate impact was small but positive, but it’s a time of life when our choices really have a lot of ramifications,” she said.
The researchers weren’t able to determine whether there was any suicidal intent behind the drug deaths, but the difference in those deaths stood out most to mental health experts.
King called the overall results “very encouraging,” although she cautioned they need to be replicated.
“What’s key is there seems to be an impact on self-injury,” she said. “One message when working with suicidal teens is to improve their coping skills and decrease depression and drug abuse. So if a teen is being effectively treated and is showing positive growth, that’s likely to prevent a whole host of outcomes.”
It’s a lot to push back on, though.
Suicides are up, and drug overdoses are up even more.
“I think it’s just the way many young people who are having serious mental health problems are dying,” King said.
Results from new studies like this, though, should offer some hope to those struggling with suicidal thoughts and the people around them, said Paul Gionfriddo, president of the nonprofit Mental Health America.
“To see this study tracking this over a long time is helpful to the field in general, to give people more hope that pathways to recovery are possible, even without medical [interventions],” Gionfriddo told Healthline.
The fact that providing extra support to young people might help strengthen those pathways wasn’t surprising to him, but he said it highlights that even people who aren’t medical professionals can help provide that support as well.
He suggested peers might be able to provide similar support to that given by the adults in this study.
One of the ways that might work is that talking with other people can help bring you back to reality, said Mary Alvord, PhD, a psychologist and clinical fellow of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
“When you say things out loud to someone, you can say, ‘Oh yeah, wait a second.’ It takes you out of that headspace,” Alvord told Healthline. “When we’re just completely in our own heads we don’t have reality checks.”
She said that there’s so much we still don’t know about suicide prevention and that is distressing to those in the mental health field. But we do know social support is key to bouncing back from suicidal thoughts or attempts.
Parents and other adults often feel helpless in trying to provide that support, Alvord said, but if, like in this study, you “can build the support for the support, then you’re bolstering everyone.”
For parents and others looking to help out but not sure how, King recommends first getting some information about a teen’s recommended treatment plans, as well as adjusting to the idea that it’s OK for other adults that teen trusts to be involved, too.
“If you’re feeling hopeless and that there’s nothing you can do, this study would suggest you can provide help — even over a short period of time,” Gionfriddo said.
He recommends getting training in active listening and not being judgmental about parents and others who may not know how to react. Instead, we should create strategies that give them more support, he said.
“When this study began there would have been much less mental health first aid and training… so we already have some interventions that are in place that can provide more support,” Gionfriddo said. “But many more are needed still, and this might point in the direction of new strategies to help.”
There are also some resources online about how to talk to teens who are struggling, including some guidelines by King.
The suicide prevention hotline is available to those worried about loved ones, not just those with suicidal thoughts. You can call 1-800-273-8255, available 24 hours a day every day of the year.
A new study suggests that having teens who have struggled with suicidal thoughts select adults in their life to act as a support system, and then having professionals support those adults might improve the teens’ chances of full recovery.
Experts say it underlines the important roles parents and others can play in recovery, even though they are often scared and worried about saying the wrong thing.
If you or a loved one may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255.