Text Messaging Program May Decrease Suicides

November 3, 2019

Annual U.S. suicide rates increased 24% between 1999 and 2014.

According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide and suicide attempts can be devastating to families and friends. In 2017, there were 47,173 recorded suicides, up from 42,773 in 2014, according to the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). On average, adjusted for age, the annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014, from 10.5 to 13.0 suicides per 100,000 people, the highest rate recorded in 28 years.

Researchers will study whether or not reaching out to mental health patients via text messaging can reduce the likelihood of them attempting suicide.

Led by Boise, Idaho-based St. Luke’s Health System, which serves Southwest Idaho and Eastern Oregon, the largest-ever study in Idaho will focus solely on how to best prevent suicide in adults and children. St. Luke’s will use a research award from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) for a study of suicide prevention techniques in adults and adolescents.

The study, known as the SPARC Trial, will compare two evidence-based approaches to prevent suicide: (1) safety planning plus follow-up support from a suicide prevention hotline, versus (2) safety planning alone. Safety planning involves patients who have considered suicide working with their providers to develop an action plan that they can use if they have thoughts of taking their life in the future. The follow-up intervention will include a phone call from a suicide prevention hotline specialist and a series of supportive text messages sent to the patient every week or two for about a year. This is the first study of its kind to include adolescents, rural populations, and primary care clinics.

Example text messages could include: “Hi Sam, it’s Anna from SPARC.  Hope you’ve had a good week.”; “Hi Sam, thinking of you this week. Reach out any time if you’d like to talk, we are here for you.  – Anna from SPARC”; or “Sending good vibes your way, Sam.  – Anna from SPARC.”

Related: Kaiser To Study Childhood Trauma Impact On Total Health

The research team includes researchers, doctors, and other healthcare providers at St. Luke’s Health System in Idaho; researchers at the University of Washington, the University of Idaho, and the University of Pennsylvania; community partners at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, Empower Idaho, and the Idaho Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health; and people with lived experience with suicide. The team will start enrolling patients in summer of 2020.

“This research will help us understand which brief suicide prevention intervention works best for adolescents and adults who screen positive for suicide in primary care settings and emergency departments,” says Anna Radin, the study’s co-principal investigator and an applied research scientist for St. Luke’s Health System, which is based in Boise, Idaho, and serves Southwest Idaho and Eastern Oregon. “The primary outcome is change in suicidal ideation and behavior; secondary outcomes include quality of life, uptake of outpatient mental health treatment, and return to care for suicidality.”

The results of this study should be of interest to healthcare leaders nationally as it will address many gaps in what we know today about how best for healthcare systems to support people at risk for suicide, according to Radin. 

Tracey Walker is senior editor of Managed Healthcare Executive.