Repeated suicide attempts and deaths by suicide were about 25 percent lower among a group of Danish people who participated in voluntary talk therapy after a suicide attempt, according to a new study.
The study is believed to be the first to show that voluntary short-term psychosocial counseling actually works to prevent suicide, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Although the patients received just six to 10 therapy sessions, the researchers found long-term benefits. They report that five years after the counseling ended, there were 26 percent fewer suicides in the group that received treatment compared to a group that did not.
“We know that people who have attempted suicide are a high-risk population and that we need to help them. However, we did not know what would be effective in terms of treatment,” said Annette Erlangsen, Ph.D, study leader and adjunct associate professor in the Department of Mental Health at Johns Hopkins.
“Now we have evidence that psychosocial treatment — which provides support, not medication — is able to prevent suicide in a group at high risk of dying by suicide.”
For the study, researchers analyzed health data from more than 65,000 people in Denmark who attempted suicide between Jan. 1, 1992, and Dec. 31, 2010. Denmark, which provides free health care for its citizens, first opened suicide prevention clinics in 1992. The clinics went nationwide in 2007.
The researchers analyzed data from 5,678 people who received psychosocial therapy at one of eight suicide prevention clinics. They then compared their outcomes over time with 17,304 people who had attempted suicide and looked similar on 31 factors, but had not gone for treatment afterward. Participants were followed for up to 20 years.
The researchers found that during the first year, those who received therapy were 27 percent less likely to attempt suicide again and 38 percent less likely to die of any cause.
After five years, there were 26 percent fewer suicides in the group that had been treated. After 10 years, the suicide rate for those who had therapy was 229 per 100,000 compared to 314 per 100,000 in the group that did not get the talk therapy.
The researchers noted that the therapy varied depending on the individual needs of the patient, so they can’t pinpoint exactly what the “active ingredient” was that inoculated those against future suicide attempts.
While it is possible that it was simply having a safe, confidential place to talk, the researchers said they plan to gather more data on which specific types of therapy may have worked better than others.
Study co-author Elizabeth A. Stuart, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins noted that before this, it was not possible to determine whether a specific suicide prevention treatment was working. It isn’t ethical to do a randomized study where some get suicide prevention therapy while others don’t, she said.
Because the Danish clinics were rolled out slowly and participation was voluntary, it gave the researchers the best way to gather this kind of information, they noted. The extent of the data — including extensive baseline data and long-term follow-up data — on such a large group of people also was critical to the success of the study, the researchers noted.
“Our findings provide a solid basis for recommending that this type of therapy be considered for populations at risk for suicide,” she said.
The study was published in Lancet Psychiatry.