A new model for suicide prevention seeks to use the power of peer influence to change high school suicide rates for the better.
Undertaken by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), the Sources of Strength program will be the subject of a long-term study at high schools across New York and North Dakota.
Developed in the late 1990s by Mark LoMurray alongside other tribal and rural suicide prevention workers in North Dakota, the Sources of Strength program identifies a culturally diverse group of youth leaders to change behaviors through targeted messaging activities.
According to research team leader Peter Wyman, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry at URMC, the program’s objective is to “strengthen how teens handle depression, stress and other problems by training influential teen ‘peer leaders’ who work to change coping practices in their friendship networks.”
Identified youth leaders may include a mix of low-risk and at-risk teens who are trained to influence others to adopt positive coping mechanisms in connection with emotional crisis. The leaders work under the monitoring of adult mentors.
Current statistics reveal that suicide accounts for more deaths in youth and young adults aged 10 to 24 than all other natural causes combined. As many as eight percent of adolescents attempt suicide each year, with up to one third requiring medical attention.
“This study is a real opportunity to determine how influential peer leaders in high school can change the culture of their schools and peer groups and determine whether this intervention leads to a decrease in suicide attempts,” Wyman said.
This program is different than previous prevention programs in that it does not make the assumption that mental health services are available to teens at risk of suicide—an assumption that is often incorrect, according to Wyman.
“Most school-based programs are oriented by a medical model designed to identify students who already are suicidal or highly distressed and refer them to treatment,” Wyman said, adding that “this traditional model does not change school culture and teen socialization in ways that prevent new instances of suicidal problems.”
The program is backed by a five-year, $3 million grant through the National Institute of Mental Health and has received the support of the New York State Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Initiatives.
The study will be conducted in 36 high schools across rural and “underserved areas” where traditional prevention models don’t hold up well. Researchers are anticipating participant numbers as high as 14,000 students.
A previous study of the program—conducted at 18 schools in Georgia, New York and North Dakota—found that trained peers in large schools were four times as likely as untrained peers to refer a suicidal youth to an adult for intervention.
Peer leaders of the Sources of Strength program are trained to encourage friends to identify “trusted adults” to reinforce communication ties and reduce stigma for reaching out for help. By decreasing isolation, the program aims to lower risk factors for suicide including the thought process that leads to action.
“Sources of Strength is an innovative and promising program,” Wyman said.