Improving the Lives of Suicidal Teens

Girl in discussion circle

Suicide is the third most common cause of death among teenagers and approximately 7% of adolescents say they have tried to kill themselves. Another 13% have seriously considered suicide and made a plan for committing it. Despite the gravity of the problem little research has been done on the most effective way to put these kids on track toward happier, healthier lives. Dr. Elizabeth McCauley is changing that with a new study that could give health providers the first evidence-based guidelines for treating suicidal teens.

“We’re investigating whether two particular therapies improve outcomes for these kids,” says McCauley, psychologist and principal investigator at Seattle Children’s Research Institute’s Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, “and that could help us develop a model of care that providers across the nation could follow.”

The study, called Collaborative Adolescent Research on Emotions and Suicide (CARES), is recruiting 170 teenagers who have attempted suicide in Seattle or Los Angeles. McCauley’s team, which includes the University of Washington’s Dr. Marsha Linehan and Seattle Children’s Dr. Molly Adrian, divides the participants into two groups. One group receives a weekly intervention called dialectal behavior therapy (DBT), which teaches patients skills that could help improve how they manage their emotions, cope with stress and navigate relationships with their parents and peers. Parents are also involved with their adolescents in a weekly group skills training group.

“DBT has never been tested in adolescents, but it’s been shown to be effective in adults and we think it has good potential,” McCauley says.

Patients in the second group undergo weekly psychotherapy in one-on-one sessions with a counselor and in group therapy sessions. This therapy’s goal is help the patients feel supported and help them overcome feelings of being misunderstood, ignored, or not valued by the people around them.

Both groups will receive treatment for six months. Then the team will spend another six months tracking whether the therapies improved the patients’ situations.

“We’ll be looking at a variety of outcomes, including whether the patients harm themselves less often, are feeling less depressed and are going to school more,” says Adrian.

The researchers hope to complete the study within three years. If the patients in either group – or in both groups – show widespread improvement, the team plans to create a manual that explains the key characteristics these interventions should include. This would give other providers a specific model to follow, and could be an invaluable tool in helping correct suicidal behavior.

“For every completed teen suicide, there are usually multiple attempts that bring kids into the emergency room and are incredibly disruptive for them and their families,” McCauley says. “We want to find a better way to reduce those attempts, and to develop a model that can improve help these teens across the country.”