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UT Southwestern Pairs Custom Safety Plan, App To Reduce Suicide Among Teenagers

UT Southwestern Medical Center
The BRITE app reminds teenagers of coping strategies they learned while hospitalized. Users can access family photos, helpful videos, tips and emergency contacts.

Suicide rates have been rising in nearly every state.

It's the 10th-leading cause of death, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide in 2016.

Suicide is rarely caused by a single factor. That's why researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas are working on a study that combines an intervention program with a personalized app aimed at teenagers.

In a recent interview with KERA, lead researcher Betsy Kennard talked about their progress with the program.

Interview Highlights

On how the program works

We teamed up with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. Dr. David Brent and I were the principal investigators on the study. Basically, what we were trying to do is to develop an intervention that would protect kids who'd been hospitalized for a suicide attempt from making another attempt. We know that after discharge from an inpatient hospital stay, which most kids who have had suicidal attempts are usually admitted to the hospital, that three to four weeks after discharge is a very high risk for re-attempt.

We developed a brief three-hour intervention called "As Safe As Possible" that would reduce their risk by targeting factors that we know to be more protective — so helping them manage their distress, helping them get access to positive emotions, helping them manage emotions without acting on suicidal urges. We combine this with an app that we developed that would allow the child to have access to their safety plan on their phone and also the strategies that they found to be helpful in managing suicide risk and suicidal urges.

On the app being custom-designed

The therapist works directly with the teen after they develop a safety plan and find out what strategies work for that particular teen. We load those into that app. So, if social support or getting peer support is helpful, we have pictures of their friends, we have their numbers of their friends, we have numbers of trusted adults as well as crisis contacts, so they can get support when they need it. We also have strategies like mindfulness or meditation if they find that helpful, deep breathing, websites that they can access.

On the app dropping attempted suicide by teens by half

Our goal was to give them skills that they may not get in standard care, that were very suicide specific and skills that would help them deal with suicidal urges. The app helped us extend that care and bridge the care until they got into follow-up treatment. That was another goal of the intervention. A lot of times kids will get out of the hospital and have trouble transitioning to the next level of care, and we really focused on that, too. We don't know what component of our intervention worked and that is why the next phase is to see if we can deaggregate the different components of the intervention to see what was most helpful.

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Justin Martin is KERA’s local host of All Things Considered, anchoring afternoon newscasts for KERA 90.1. Justin grew up in Mannheim, Germany, and avidly listened to the Voice of America and National Public Radio whenever stateside. He graduated from the American Broadcasting School, and further polished his skills with radio veteran Kris Anderson of the Mighty 690 fame, a 50,000 watt border-blaster operating out of Tijuana, Mexico. Justin has worked as holiday anchor for the USA Radio Network, serving the U.S. Armed Forces Network. He’s also hosted, produced, and engineered several shows, including the Southern Gospel Jubilee on 660 KSKY.