Attempted suicide is the main risk factor for suicide and repeated suicide attempts. However, the evidence for follow-up treatments reducing suicidal behavior in these patients is limited. The objective of the present study was to evaluate the efficacy of the Attempted Suicide Short Intervention Program (ASSIP) in reducing suicidal behavior. ASSIP is a novel brief therapy based on a patient-centered model of suicidal behavior, with an emphasis on early therapeutic alliance.
Methods and Findings
Patients who had recently attempted suicide were randomly allocated to treatment as usual (n = 60) or treatment as usual plus ASSIP (n = 60). ASSIP participants received three therapy sessions followed by regular contact through personalized letters over 24 months. Participants considered to be at high risk of suicide were included, 63% were diagnosed with an affective disorder, and 50% had a history of prior suicide attempts. Clinical exclusion criteria were habitual self-harm, serious cognitive impairment, and psychotic disorder. Study participants completed a set of psychosocial and clinical questionnaires every 6 months over a 24-month follow-up period.
The study represents a real-world clinical setting at an outpatient clinic of a university hospital of psychiatry. The primary outcome measure was repeat suicide attempts during the 24-month follow-up period. Secondary outcome measures were suicidal ideation, depression, and health-care utilization. Furthermore, effects of prior suicide attempts, depression at baseline, diagnosis, and therapeutic alliance on outcome were investigated.
During the 24-month follow-up period, five repeat suicide attempts were recorded in the ASSIP group and 41 attempts in the control group. The rates of participants reattempting suicide at least once were 8.3% (n = 5) and 26.7% (n = 16). ASSIP was associated with an approximately 80% reduced risk of participants making at least one repeat suicide attempt (Wald χ21 = 13.1, 95% CI 12.4–13.7, p < 0.001). ASSIP participants spent 72% fewer days in the hospital during follow-up (ASSIP: 29 d; control group: 105 d; W = 94.5, p = 0.038). Higher scores of patient-rated therapeutic alliance in the ASSIP group were associated with a lower rate of repeat suicide attempts. Prior suicide attempts, depression, and a diagnosis of personality disorder at baseline did not significantly affect outcome. Participants with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder (n = 20) had more previous suicide attempts and a higher number of reattempts.
Key study limitations were missing data and dropout rates. Although both were generally low, they increased during follow-up. At 24 months, the group difference in dropout rate was significant: ASSIP, 7% (n = 4); control, 22% (n = 13). A further limitation is that we do not have detailed information of the co-active follow-up treatment apart from participant self-reports every 6 months on the setting and the duration of the co-active treatment.
ASSIP, a manual-based brief therapy for patients who have recently attempted suicide, administered in addition to the usual clinical treatment, was efficacious in reducing suicidal behavior in a real-world clinical setting. ASSIP fulfills the need for an easy-to-administer low-cost intervention. Large pragmatic trials will be needed to conclusively establish the efficacy of ASSIP and replicate our findings in other clinical settings.
In a randomized controlled trial, Konrad Michel and colleagues test the efficacy of a manual-based therapy intended to prevent repeat suicide attempts.
Suicide is a serious public health problem. Over 800,000 people worldwide die by suicide every year. In the US, one suicide death occurs approximately every 12 minutes. While the causes of suicide are complex, the goals of suicide prevention are simple—reduce factors that increase risk, and increase factors that promote resilience or coping. Factors that increase suicide risk include family history of suicide, family history of child abuse, previous suicide attempts, history of mental disorders (particularly depression), history of alcohol and substance abuse, and access to lethal means. Factors that are protective against suicide include effective clinical care for mental, physical, and substance abuse disorders; connectedness to family and community; and problem solving and conflict resolution skills. A previous suicide attempt is the main risk factor for repeat attempts and for completed suicide. Fifteen to 25 percent of people who attempt suicide make another attempt, and five to ten percent eventually die by suicide.
Why Was This Study Done?
A number of suicide prevention treatments have been developed. Most of them involve therapy sessions and personal follow-up. While some of them have been shown to work in clinical trials—often with participants who have made a previous suicide attempt—few interventions have proven to be effective consistently in different settings. For this study, the researchers developed a treatment called Attempted Suicide Short Intervention Program (ASSIP) composed of three therapy sessions shortly after the suicide attempt and follow-up over two years with personalized mailed letters. They wanted the therapy part to be short, in order to provide a treatment that would allow a psychiatric service to cope with the large number of patients seen in the emergency department after a suicide attempt. The therapeutic elements of the treatment emphasized building an early therapeutic alliance, which would then serve as a basis (“anchoring”) for long-term outreach contact through regular letters. The therapy sessions and letters follow a detailed script, which the researchers developed into a manual that includes a step-by-step description of the highly structured treatment, checklists, handouts, and standardized letters for use by health professionals in various clinical settings. This study was done to test whether ASSIP can reduce suicidal behavior in addition to routine treatment.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers carried out a randomized clinical trial testing ASSIP in people who had attempted suicide (the majority by intentional overdosing) and been admitted to the emergency department of the Bern University General Hospital in Switzerland. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups. The treatment group received ASSIP in addition to treatment as usual (inpatient, day patient, and outpatient care as deemed appropriate by the hospital clinicians); the control group received a single structured assessment interview plus treatment as usual. The study objective was to evaluate—with follow-up questionnaires and health-care data—whether ASSIP can reduce the rate of repeated suicide attempt in the 24 months after a suicide attempt. The researchers also compared suicidal ideation (i.e., whether and how often participants had suicidal thoughts), levels of depression, and how often people were hospitalized between the two groups.
A total of 120 patients who had recently attempted suicide were randomly allocated to treatment as usual or treatment as usual plus ASSIP. The 60 ASSIP participants received three therapy sessions followed by regular contact over 24 months. During the first therapy session, the patient was prompted to tell the story of how he or she had reached the point of attempting suicide. Narrative interviewing is a key element of ASSIP’s patient-centered collaborative approach. The first session was videotaped, and parts were watched and discussed by patient and therapist during the second session, to recreate the experience of psychological pain and analyze how stress developed into suicidal action. During the final session, therapist and patient developed a list of long-term goals, warning signs, and safety strategies. These were printed and given to the patient in a credit-card-sized folded leaflet along with a list of telephone help numbers. Patients were told to carry both items at all times and to use them in the event of an emotional crisis. Over the subsequent two years, patients received six letters from their therapist reminding them of the risk of future suicidal crises and the importance of the collaboratively developed safety strategies.
During the 24 months of follow-up, one death by suicide occurred in each group, five repeat suicide attempts were recorded in the ASSIP group, and 41 repeat suicide attempts were recorded in the control group. ASSIP was associated with an approximately 80% reduced risk of repeat suicide attempt. In addition, ASSIP participants spent 72% fewer days in the hospital during follow-up. There was no difference in patient-reported suicidal ideation or in levels of depression.
What Do these Findings Mean?
The results show that ASSIP, administered in addition to the usual clinical treatment, was able to reduce suicidal behavior over 24 months in patients who had recently attempted suicide. The addition of ASSIP to usual treatment directly or its effect on repeat attempts might also reduce health care costs. The absence of effects on suicidal thoughts and depression is consistent with ASSIP’s objective to help people cope with crises as opposed to eliminating them. The study’s findings in a real-world clinical setting (a university hospital in the Swiss capital) are promising. They justify further testing in large clinical trials and diverse settings to answer conclusively whether and where ASSIP can reduce repeat suicide attempts, prevent deaths from suicide, and reduce health-care costs.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001968.
National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention has information on research prioritization for suicide prevention
There is also a supplemental issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine focused on research about suicide prevention
More information about suicide is available from ZEROSuicide http://zerosuicide.sprc.org/ and the Suicide Prevention Resource Center http://www.sprc.org/
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on suicide
The UK Mental Health Foundation also has information on suicide
The page “About Suicide” from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has information on warning signs, risk factors, and statistics
The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers help and information
The Bern University Hospital of Psychiatry has a page describing ASSIP for patients (in German)
The Finnish Association for Mental Health has a page describing ASSIP (in English)